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Dealing With National Debt

February 11, 1993

I was saddened when I read Walter Russell Mead's article on the national debt (Opinion, Jan. 17). I had hoped that after a decade of triple-digit budget deficits and a debt of $4 trillion that Americans would finally realize that we face a dangerous problem that needs to be addressed.

Mead cites the large debts of the past. The debt bore by our forefathers in building our nation, the larger debt we undertook to reunite the country and settle the West after the Civil War and the even larger debts we bore to fight the World Wars. All of these were noble endeavors and worth borrowing from our future to undertake them--after all that's what you borrow for, to undertake something that is deemed worthwhile and will contribute to your ability to repay. This has not been the case for the debt our nation has borne over the past 12 years.

Since 1979 we have borrowed over $3 trillion of our $4 trillion national debt--that's over $14,500 per person (a statistic not quoted by Mead). Did we build our nation as Washington and Jefferson did in the late 1700s? Did we build a transportation and communications system and rebuild our nation as we did in the 1860s? Perhaps we retooled industry to fight enemies on two continents? No, sadly we do not see the benefits from borrowing and now the costs loom before ourselves and our children.

Interest on the debt now takes up over 14% of our federal budget, not the 3.4% it did after World War I and not the 3.8% it did after World War II. Now it's competing with the Defense Department as the second largest expenditure item in the budget. If we do nothing but drink toasts to the national debt it will reach $5.2 trillion in less than five years. In 1979 the debt was 1.63% of gross domestic product; if we do nothing but wish it a happy birthday each year it will be over 20% by 2020.

Since we did not reinvest the money we borrowed into capital that would enable us to pay off what we borrowed, as we did in the past, we are now locked into structural deficits that will force us to continue to borrow to pay the interest on what we have already borrowed. This is what is now causing our national debt to burgeon and our standard of living to decline.

It's true, we have not seen the wolf, but there are termites in the basement and the wolf is at the door.

PHILLIP YARBROUGH

Santa Ana

The writer is professor of economics at Rancho Santiago College in Orange and a member of the Concord Coalition, an organization founded by Sens. Paul Tsongas and Warren Rudman to bring attention to the national debt and deficit issues.

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