Do you wish to be remembered? Leave a lot of debts.
-- Old American saying
Four years ago, in one of his most memorable public performances, President Reagan brilliantly explained what $1 trillion means. "If you had a stack of $1,000 bills in your hand only four inches high, you'd be a millionaire," he told a joint session of Congress in a nationally televised speech. "A trillion dollars would be a stack of $1,000 bills 67 miles high."
That description was one everyone listening in Archie Bunker's celebrated tavern could, and presumably did, understand. It had a nice, simple symmetry. It even, for once, made inoperable William Safire's wonderfully apt term, MEGO (for "my eyes glaze over"), to describe the average American's reaction to the latest astronomical economic statistics emanating from Washington, billions for this exceeded by trillions for that.
The president was then laying out for members of Congress and his fellow citizens his program for economic recovery, and pledging to take action to reduce that rising level of national debt. At the time, it was approaching the $1 trillion mark. Enact his program of tax cuts and spending cuts, you'll remember he said, and an age of opportunity would dawn. People would save more, factories would hum, and those deficits would decline amid the explosion of rapid economic growth. Virtually overnight, he predicted, the budget deficits would shrink, then disappear. Soon the budget would be balanced. We'd be enjoying an annual surplus in the federal treasury instead of those ever-mounting debts.
Months later (exactly four years ago this coming Tuesday), he again spoke to the nation about his economic program. He recalled his earlier address: "When I presented our economic recovery program to Congress, I said we were aiming to cut the deficit steadily to reach a balance by 1984." That was still the goal, he said. Again, he used the $1 trillion figure as a rallying symbol of danger to inspire greater action to cut the debt: "In just the past decade, our national debt has more than doubled. And in the next few days, it'll pass the one trillion dollar mark. One trillion dollars of debt -- if we as a nation needed a warning, let that be it."
Today, that old devil debt continues to rise in almost geometrical proportions. It has a self-perpetuating life of its own.
This month, the debt nears $2 trillion -- you figure out how many miles that stack of $1,000 bills would now extend into space -- and for the 11th time in Reagan's presidency, Congress deliberates over raising the federal debt ceiling. This time, when approved, as it must be if the United States is to continue to pay its bills, the official debt ceiling will be double that of four years ago. Our trade deficit also stands at a historic high. Our government tells us we've now become a debtor nation for the first time since 1914. And, amid these alarums, last week brought other dispiriting official news about our economic habits: The savings rate for Americans has dropped to the lowest level since the government began compiling that statistic 26 years ago.
Personally, Americans are spending more, saving less and plunging deeper into debt. People are carrying a record level of consumer debt. The same is so for the nation as a whole. And that's not the end of it, citizens. A sobering Editorial Research Reports study by Mary H. Cooper, published a few days ago by Congressional Quarterly, says:
"Just as the nation has gone into the red with the rest of the world, American consumers and businesses have been accumulating debts of their own at a rapid pace. Taken together, the outstanding debt of all types -- public, consumer and corporate -- grew faster in 1984 than at any time since World War II and now amounts to more than $5 trillion. While that astounding sum is small compared with the country's total assets of $24 trillion, the annual interest on the debt, about $600 billion, amounts to 16 percent of the gross national product (GNP), the country's total output of goods and services."
If all this isn't enough to get your attention, how about this: The forecasters say the geometric symmetry of our debt will continue to circle neatly ever upward. In five more years, on our present course, the trade deficit will rise to the $1 trillion mark. By the same terms, the total national debt will have jumped again from $2 trillion to $3 trillion, a tripling of the debt in less than a decade.
Well, I leave it to experts in the "dismal science" of economics to sort out the theoretical and technical hows and whys of all this. But you don't have to be an expert to get the meaning of this blunt message. We're hurtling pell-mell into debtor status at all levels of American society, and no amount of smiles and soft soap from the White House can keep this news from being understood.
It doesn't have to be that way. Reagan still has the opportunity to take the lead in pressing for debt reduction -- real debt reduction, not rhetoric, requiring a combination of across-the-board cuts at every level of federal spending and tax increases. If he doesn't, he's in danger of being remembered, as the old saying goes, as the guy who left a lot of debts -- and left the rest of us to clean up the mess for decades to come.