Bob Franken

The US Deficit Attention Disorder

Copyright by Hearst-New York Times News Service
August 4, 2010

To even write the word risks immediate rejection by readers or a sudden daze. But here we go: Deficit.

Before the eyes start to glaze, consider the latest projections from the Obama administration. The federal budget deficit this year will be nearly $1.5 trillion.

That’s trillion, with a capital ‘T” — and that stands for “Trouble.” That’s not music, man, it’s a dire warning of national ruin.

The numbers are staggering. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that in just nine years if we stay on course, the national debt will consume more than 3 percent of GDP, more than double the percentage this year.

The gross domestic product index measures everything American workers produce. That 3 percent — $700 billion — will go into the debt sinkhole.

Put another way, the CBO predicts that interest payments on the national debt will make up 14 percent of overall federal spending in 2020, fourth behind defense, Social Security and Medicare.

Public debt owned by foreigners comprises about 50 percent of the total. So almost half the interest payments now leave the country. That will grow dramatically as interest rates inevitably rise.

Unless drastic action is taken — and soon — calamity is just down the road. At some point we will no longer be able to continue our Ponzi-like borrowing. The standard of living for all of us will go right into the toilet. And yet the subject bores us. We have deficit-attention disorder.

No stimulant is going to help with this one unless we give it to those who somehow make doomsaying boring.

They are largely people who have spent an entire lifetime studying the stupefying intricacies of budgeting and they want to flog the rest of us with convoluted charts and incomprehensible jargon.

Let’s cut to the chase: We’re chasing disaster unless our political leaders get a courage transplant. That’s unlikely. So we can either wait for a miracle or come up with creative ways to raise revenue.

Here are some government moneymaking plans that our politicians will love: all gain, no pain.

Naming rights: This one is so obvious. Shouldn’t corporations proudly declare their ownership of our country with, say, the Boeing Pentagon? We could have the Goldman-Sachs Treasury Building (Citibank already has a stadium) United Health-care and Human Services, The Pfizer Pfood and Drug Administration.

Product placement: It’s along the same line. Why does that have to be a presidential seal on front of the lectern when Obama speaks? Wouldn’t a Coca-Cola logo be nice?

Real estate: It would be much easier to sell the idea of closing Guantanamo Bay prison if we could then turn it into high-end condominiums. It’s beautiful, prime beach area. GITMO Shores could become the ultimate gated community.

Capitol gains: Back home again, there is no reason to ignore the U.S. Capitol building. Anyone who has ever visited knows that over the House and Senate floors are viewing areas called “galleries.” That’s where all the human props sit during State of the Union speeches.

Wouldn’t it be easy to turn these balconies into sky boxes and sell them so those with big bucks can see whether buying Congress was worth it?

Too exotic? Then we have no choice. People will have to pay attention to the ominous warning signs. Instead of gobbledygook, perhaps we need another “Daisy” commercial.

That was the famous election ad sponsored by Lyndon John-son’s 1964 presidential campaign to paint Barry Goldwater as dangerously impetuous. It showed a little girl plucking the petals of a daisy and counting them. At the end, her voice is replaced with a harsh male “… 3-2-1-zero,” and then a fiery nuclear explosion. It ran as a paid ad just once — and it was devastating. Fast forward to now.

Maybe, instead of impossible pie charts, someone creates a modern Daisy ad. This time she’s sweetly plucking flowers in the back seat of her family minivan — until suddenly the vehicle dives off of a cliff.

Our kids can count on catastrophe if we don’t take heed of our reckless ways. If we fail to get over our deficit-attention disorder, our economy will soon have another name: bankrupt.

Bob Franken writes for Hearst Newspapers. He can be reached at

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