There's an unopened credit card bill on my kitchen counter that I am trying not to think about. It's been sitting there for days. There are three dental visits on it, a half-dozen trips to the gas station, a couple of boneheaded, "don't-worry-I've-got-it" restaurant tabs, and at least two dozen other charges, half of which I won't remember making.
I know I'm going to have to face the bill soon enough, but not just yet. One more day of blissful ignorance, I tell myself. But truth be told, leaving it sealed is making me feel ill.
It's the same with the national debt, only on a slightly larger scale, of course. Millions of us are aware it's out there -- that nearly $16 trillion-and-growing Godzilla of a bill -- but we try not to think about it in our daily lives. That sickening feeling about the future pervades nonetheless.
A quick tear of the envelope reveals the frightful toplines: U.S. taxpayers are $15.7 trillion in debt today and that number will reach just under $20 trillion in four years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. We now owe, in federal debt alone, 100 percent of our gross domestic product GDP -- that is, we are in the hole for as much as the entire nation produces in a year. U.S. taxpayers are expected to be paying about $1 trillion in yearly interest payments alone on that debt by the end of the decade. That's more money being paid on interest, every year, than we spent on the 2008 federal stimulus package.
And then there's state debt. Westchester and Rockland residents are feeling that keenly, and the pain is just beginning. New York made overly generous pension promises to public employee unions for decades. It was a simple trade-off: Politicians gave the unions anything they wanted, and the unions gave them campaign cash and volunteers.
The problem, though, is that not nearly enough money was set aside for those obligations and the bills are coming due. That debt is passed on to counties and municipalities, so families living in Westchester, Rockland and other areas of the state have seen their property taxes skyrocket while services have been cut.
And expect those services to be cut a lot more in the coming years. The state now has a 2 percent property tax cap, but mandated costs keep pouring down from Albany. So less and less money will be available for discretionary programs like parks, senior citizen services, and other things upon which so many have come to rely.
In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced, residents are paying more for services already rendered than for services being delivered today. That's nuts. If something isn't done about it, discretionary services could all but disappear in New York in the years to come. (Will we need elect representatives when expenses are all mandates?)
Now it gets scarier: If you're counting unfunded obligations as debt -- and what's the difference? -- then Social Security and Medicare promises have to be factored in. And there's where you get into the really frightful numbers. Estimates on those unfunded liabilities exceed $100 trillion.
You'd think that with staggering numbers like these, our leaders in Washington, frantic and sweat-stained, would be burning the midnight oil to come up with a solution. But they're doing the opposite: They continue to pass budgets in which 40 percent of the money we spend is borrowed. We're not just ignoring those credit card bills on the counter, we're letting them stack up while using the cards at an even faster pace.
A very smart congressional candidate I'm working with just put that into perspective: About 60 percent of the 2013 federal budget is earmarked for non-discretionary items -- Social Security, Medicare, debt payments and other mandated obligations. The remaining 40 percent, he noted -- the cost of the military and every discretionary federal programs we have today -- are operating on borrowed money. In other words, if we were to spend within our means starting now, the entire federal government, with the exception of those agencies that administer our entitlement programs, would have to shut down.
And what are we arguing about in this year's presidential election? Who gets credit for killing Osama bin Laden, contraception, how much we're going to subsidize college loans (with borrowed money), and whether "millionaires and billionaires" should kick in enough money every year to cover what amounts to 17 hours of U.S. borrowing.
Meanwhile, the underlying national malaise grows.
Bill O'Reilly is a corporate and political communications consultant who works on the Republican side of the aisle.