Deficit clock illustrates fiscal woes to Marylanders

October 10, 1994|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Staff Writer

Frank Faris usually spends Sunday afternoons thinking about Aikido, a form of martial arts he teaches in a studio near the Cross Street Market.

But yesterday he found himself thinking about the numbers flashing across a billboard-sized electronic clock mounted on wheels and parked at a service station three flights below his studio.

Each second, the National Debt Clock at South Charles and West Cross streets ticked off the federal deficit. The foot-high figure increased at the rate of $9,600 per second.

When Mr. Faris first spotted the clock on his way to work yesterday at 12:30 p.m., it read $4,708,554,871,223 -- $4.7 trillion. In the two minutes he spent talking with the clock's keepers, the figure increased by $1.1 million.

"It's scary if you think about it. This really is more serious than anyone thinks," Mr. Faris said.

The Concord Coalition, a group started by former U.S. Sens. Paul Tsongas and Warren B. Rudman, brought the clock to Baltimore. Brian Keane, the group's Boston-based national field coordinator, said the clock, built two years ago for $20,000, has toured the country several times to dramatize the need to eliminate the national debt.

"The goal is to have people see it and ask questions about it," said Mr. Keane, 27.

The current eight-week tour cost the coalition $40,000, Mr. Keane said. The nonprofit, Washington-based group is funded by contributions.

The clock has covered 10,000 miles on its recent tour, appearing at state fairs, arts festivals, political rallies and just about anywhere organizers think they can find a crowd.

Yesterday, the 10-foot high, 25-foot long clock was parked at South Charles and East Cross streets from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The clock made its first appearance in Baltimore last November at a news conference announcing the formation of the coalition's state committee.

In a glossy, 72-page booklet distributed yesterday to passers-by, the coalition says its plan would eliminate the national debt by the year 2000 through 64 tax increases and cuts to federal programs.

"The federal budget hasn't been balanced since 1969," Mr. Keane said as he handed a booklet to Timothy Wessel.

"I guess it's got me thinking," said Mr. Wessel of Silver Spring. "I might be like the average person and set this [booklet]on my night table and never look at it. But then again I might read it cover to cover."

Mr. Keane and Joshua Milton, the coalition's state coordinator, acknowledge that parts of the plan -- such as cutting Social Security benefits and increasing the tax on gasoline by 50 cents a gallon -- are politically unpopular.

Mr. Tsongas' proposal to cut Social Security benefits to upper income recipients crippled his 1990 presidential campaign, said Mr. Keane, who worked in the former Massachusetts senator's campaign.

Bill Brock's vote for a gas tax when he was a Tennessee congressman is being used against him in his Republican bid for U.S. Senate in Maryland, Mr. Milton said.

Mr. Keane and Mr. Milton say people are realizing sacrifices will have to be made to eliminate the deficit.

"People are willing to sacrifice, if they know that everyone is going to do their part," said Mr. Milton.

Mr. Faris, 51, said the pressure on Social Security and other entitlement programs is going to increase as his generation reaches retirement, putting more demand on a system that will be supported by fewer and fewer workers.

He also said he thinks the group is generally headed in the right direction.

"Government should look more toward sharing resources, putting the manpower where it's needed and then transferring it when it's needed somewhere else," he said.

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