William F. B. O'Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.
Sell Alaska to reduce U.S. debt.
What an inspired idea -- the best one to come out of Washington in years.
It didn't come from the president or Congress; it came from Washington Post energy correspondent Steven Mufson. He should win a public relations prize for the effort, the same one the Taco Bell public-relations folks should have gotten in 2001 for promising a free taco to everyone on Earth if the falling Russian Mir space station hit a floating target in the South Pacific. The 40-foot-square Taco Bell float featured a giant bullseye over the words "FREE TACO HERE."
We're not going to sell Alaska, of course. At least not yet. But Mufson's proposal hammers home a point so many in Washington seem to be missing: America is deep in debt. Russian Winter deep.
Mufson is a smart guy, and he actually estimates the value of what Alaska would fetch on the open market today. This massive mineral goldmine, well over twice the size of Texas and four times the size of California, would conservatively bring in about $2.5 trillion.
I don't know what your reaction to that number is, but mine, when I first learned it, was, "That's it? $2.5 trillion? For Alaska!?"
And that's where Mufson earns his prize.
Fiscal conservatives have struggled and failed for a decade to qualify the extent of the growing federal debt to the American public in a way that can be easily understood. Mufson just did it.
The debt is so big that selling Alaska wouldn't even dent it.
Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman noted in a column this week that if private-sector accounting standards were used by the federal government, U.S. taxpayers would be on the hook not for the $16 trillion seen on public "debt clocks," but for $87 trillion. That number reflects hard federal debt (state debt is another worry), plus unfunded liabilities for Social Security, Medicare and federal employee pension benefits -- obligations we have promised to pay without having a penny in the bank to do so. Those liabilities are growing by almost $8 trillion every year, even at these rock-bottom interest rates.
Think about that.
If Alaska is worth around $2.5 trillion, some analysts say we're adding three times that amount of debt to our balance sheet every year. And all the while, members of Congress are bragging to constituents at home about their efforts to "protect" entitlement programs from change.
Show of hands: How many of you got a piece of campaign literature in 2012 depicting a senior citizen saying something like, "Hands off my Medicare!"
My wife and I got about five.
How many got pieces from candidates promising to fundamentally restructure our entitlement programs to save the Republic?
So why aren't we taking the debt crisis seriously? Why do we all go about our business day after day, arguing red herring issues, with nary a thought of the debt we are amassing?
Is this the slow-boiling frog that foolishly fails to leap from the water as it gradually warms? Or is it the illusion of numerical invulnerability that beguiled army after army heading into Russian winters?
Soldiers in Napoleon's grand army thought it impossible that they could freeze to death en masse as they invaded Moscow in 1812. And yet thousands and thousands did. Are Americans two centuries later demonstrating that same arrogance?
A lot of smart people believe we are.
If talk of selling Alaska or Hawaii or, heck, California, is what it takes to wake us up to the realities of our overspending, then I say let's have the conversation.
Someone should put a bill on the floor of Congress to that effect with the same devilish grin that the Taco Bell people surely wore while floating a target out over the South Pacific.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.