$9,291,899,089,252? Yes, be worried

Two weeks ago, a hefty package arrived (electronically) on Capitol Hill. It was the president's proposed $3.1 trillion budget, his last before leaving office. The budget, which was largely symbolic and will likely be replaced with a new one formulated by Democrats after Bush heads back to the ranch, offered increases in military spending, cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, and, oh, would raise the federal deficit about $250 billion to a near-record $410 billion. Ouch.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not writing to criticize anyone in particular, Democrat or Republican (although I always have wondered why Reagan is upheld as the epitome of conservatism and fiscal responsibility when under his administration federal deficits and the federal debt skyrocketed). I'm also not going to claim to be an expert on government spending, or on international finance. It's true, the Reagan era did give rise to the boom years of the '90s, and the '80s-era predictions of the economic catastrophe that would surely ensue as deficits continued to rise did not come to pass.

There's no doubt that government spending stimulates the economy. That's not to say, though, that deficit spending doesn't matter (despite what Dick Cheney would have you believe). According to the Government Printing Office's Citizen's Guide to the Federal Budget, "deficits force the government to borrow money in the private capital markets. That borrowing competes with (1) borrowing by businesses that want to build factories and machines that make workers more productive and raise incomes, and (2) borrowing by families who hope to buy new homes, cars and other goods. The competition for funds tends to produce higher interest rates.

"Deficits increase the federal debt and, with it, the government's obligation to pay interest. The more it must pay in interest, the less it has available to spend on education, law enforcement, and other important services, or the more it must collect in taxes - forever after."

The fact that the dollar's value continues to fall overseas and there's the possibility of OPEC pegging oil prices to the Euro, as some member nations have recently called for, are even more reason for us to be concerned.

Remember 1998, when the federal government reported a budget surplus of $69 billion, the first since 1969, and was able to pay down the federal debt by $50 billion? (Well, technically neither do I, at least not in terms of what the government was spending.) Also, in 1999, we had a surplus of nearly $125 billion, in 2000 it was $236 billion, and 2001 $127 billion.

Of course, after Sept. 11 prompted the Afghanistan war and a massive increase in military spending under Bush, in 2002 we saw our lovely surplus sliced to an ugly $159 billion deficit (also thanks in part to the president's 2001 $1.35 trillion tax cut). Since then, we've seen deficits jump around in the $200 billion to $400 billion range, with a five-year low of $162 billion in 2007.

Simply put, rampant deficit spending is something we need to be concerned about. The total public debt outstanding as of Feb. 14, according to the U.S. Treasury, was $9,291,899,089,252.55, and that's not money that's going to repay itself - our generation is going to do it in the long run. Given young people's reemerging interest in politics, this is the perfect opportunity to let the government (and our new president, whomever it may be) know that we won't stand by and let ourselves be saddled with debt. It's in your, my and the government's best long-term interest to balance the budget and pay off the federal debt. It's time to start caring.

Jacob Kriss is a senior English major, mild-mannered Lamron editor-in-chief by day and champion of fiscal responsibility by night.

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