A Dime and a Trillion

September 14, 1992

George Wallace used to say there wasn't a dime's worth of difference between the two major political parties. Well, this election changes that calculation a mite. According to experts at the Committee for a Responsible Budget, a watchdog group that specializes in castor oil rather than milk and honey, there is about a trillion-dollar difference between George Bush and Bill .. Clinton.

Neither candidate for president has offered a credible program to stop the catastrophic increase in the national debt -- despite the economic pamphlets they are hawking to the electorate. Nor will they. For as Ross Perot discovered, to do so would ensure devastating defeat, which is why he got out of the race. So we are left to choose between two politicians with varying degrees of incredibility.

According to the economic program President Bush repackaged the other day, he would reduce the deficit an average of $60

billion annually over the next five years. These are the committee's calculations, not his. Since the nation seems addicted for the moment to $300 billion deficits, this suggests the debt, now $4 trillion, could go up $240 billion during each of the next five years to reach a total of $5.4 trillion.

This is bad enough, coming from a Republican who says he wants to shrink government. But committee experts figure Governor Clinton, who leans toward bigger government, would add still another trillion dollars to the deficit, pushing it up beyond $6 trillion in half a decade. At that level, interest on the debt would run almost $600 billion a year, a figure twice the size of the present defense budget and almost double present interest costs.

Harry E. Figgie Jr., an entrepreneur-industrialist who has written a book, "Bankruptcy 1995," contends that when we reach these figures "the American national debt would have grown beyond our ability to control it through taxation." If the government dedicated every penny of income tax to debt reduction, he argues, it wouldn't be enough.

Naturally, no one aspiring to the White House would calculate in such apocalyptic terms, nor is such a doomsday scenario inevitable. Some corrective trends are at work, most notably recession-causing reductions in private and corporate debt. But in assessing the rival economic plans heard today on the hustings, it is well to listen to what is said -- and is not said. Not much is said about the national debt, though it is the country's biggest problem. Instead, the two candidates stress their divergent approaches to stimulate growth -- Governor Clinton through taxing the rich and increased spending, President Bush through tax cuts and a slowdown in government outlays.

While there is a lot more than a dime's worth of difference between these two approaches, both lack one of the two ingredients needed for real debt reduction: increased revenues and reduced government spending. Unless both become federal policy, America may face a debt crisis before the next presidential term has run its full course.

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