Remember that old line about the national debt? That it didn't matter how big it got because it's just money we owe to ourselves?
Well, tonight's "CBS Reports: The In-the-Red Blues" (10 p.m., Channels 2 and 8) destroys that common economic fallacy by showing how America's national borrowing binge has created yet another new crisis: the debt crisis.
Despite the booming stock market, anchor Lesley Stahl says--in what is a lively if doomsdayish survey of our current economic landscape--that the United States is no longer the economic power it was 25 years ago.
How that came to pass--how we went from being the world's biggest lender to the world's biggest borrower--and what it portends for a country cozy in its faith in steady economic progress are what Stahl and economics correspondent Robert Krulwich set out to explain.
They do a pretty good job and cover a lot of ground--maybe too much too quickly too superficially, considering some of the complicated subject matter: the effect that a huge national debt will have on our children, the nearly impossible political difficulties of cutting back government programs or benefits such as Social Security, the irony of how the Japanese are funding much of our borrowing with the dollars they've earned by selling us Sonys and Hondas.
As usual, agreement among economic experts such as former Carter Administration adviser Charles Schultze and Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan is rare. Opinions collide and contradict, especially when politicians such as Rep. Jack Kemp (R--N.Y.) get their say: "The doom-sayers are wrong. We're not going to hell in a hand basket if we make the right choices and don't panic and start raising taxes. . . ."
Contrarily, Rep. Richard Gephardt (D--Mo.) says he'd cut defense spending and raise "revenues" to balance the budget. In a funny but telling exchange, Stahl, bless her, challenges Gephardt on his repeated use of the euphemism revenues when he's really talking about taxes.
"Why do you say revenues ? " she asks. "What about taxes ? Is that a T-word? You can't say taxes? "
Gephardt reluctantly uses the T-word.
Many might disagree strongly with her conclusion that we are all collectively to blame for the debt problem. But overall, Stahl and company inject a lot of life and even some wit into a subject that usually induces sleep faster than a morning lecture on the history of the Federal Reserve Board.