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THIS BIG RED NUMBER IS THE NATIONAL DEBT, TICKING TOWARD $11-TRILLION.

It is unfathomable what we as a nation owe. It binds our national economy, our foreign policy, our future.

Taxpayers, we have a problem.

Financial bailouts rapidly topping $1-trillion. Two wars officially burning through $11-billion a month and unofficially many times more than that sum. A second domestic economic stimulus package, equal to or even double the size of February's $152-billion economic pick-me-up, churning through Congress amid a recession.

A wave of boomer retirees rolling toward already struggling Medicare and Social Security. Volatile and runaway prices on foreign oil that suck hundreds of billions of dollars annually from U.S. coffers. A president and Congress who never met a tax cut they did not like. And two vote-wooing presidential candidates in the last days of strenuous campaigns scrapping over whose promised tax cuts will help more people.

Since the end of August, the national debt has jumped from $9.6-trillion to $10.4-trillion, with borrowing for the bank bailout yet to come.

Where's all this dough going to come from? (Not from us, at least not for a while.) And how does the country's title of Greatest Debtor on Earth play to the rest of the world at a time when we are so busy trying to shape its behavior? The themes of a weaker dollar and a diminished America, weighed under by a heavy national debt and ambitious domestic and foreign agendas, are growing more common in books, magazines, films and speeches on the global political circuit.

As Peter Hegseth, Vets for Freedom chairman and a 101st Airborne Division captain who served in Iraq, says in the very first sentence of his piece last week in the National Review:

"The past month has been dominated by concern over the economy and America's long-term financial solvency - and rightfully so. But our country's national security is inextricably linked to our economic vitality - especially in an increasingly interconnected world. In order to project power, we must have the ability to build wealth at home."

If that's true - and it is a historical truth spanning centuries and civilizations - then the United States better get its economic act together pronto. And we better quit pretending that domestic policy - how we handle our money and our economy - doesn't affect our ability to project power abroad and fight wars. Or that foreign policy isn't tied directly to the health of our economy. That's a false dichotomy. We finance both out of the taxpayers' pockets - or by begging more money from the Chinese. And don't forget how tied our economy is to others around the world - from the price of oil to the value of a dollar, from what we make to what we buy.

To update the old political spending saw: A few trillion dollars here, a few trillion there and pretty soon we're talking about real money.

In truth, the exact opposite is true. The federal government is neck-deep in a spend-baby-spend period of historic proportion with so little bookkeeping accountability that our own government could look to Enron's accounting shenanigans as a role model for being more forthright with U.S. taxpayers.

"Two problems that led to Wall Street's crisis - lack of transparency and overreliance on debt - are problems for the federal budget as well," warns the Concord Coalition, a group committed to more responsible management of the federal deficit.

How do you spend, spend, spend without raising government revenues or cutting expenses? You borrow, borrow, borrow. You leave the dinner bill with the new incoming president in January, who in turn will likely pass the buck (owed) on to his or her successors.

Yes, a strong military speaks volumes about the implied muscle behind foreign actions. But a weak economy does no less. We can see it with the decline in personal spending, philanthropy and giving in our own neighborhoods and communities. Tighter times beget leaner contributions.

Such is the international worry about U.S. overseas aid, despite President Bush's insistence last week that the country remains committed to foreign assistance.

"During times of economic crisis, some may be tempted to turn inward - focusing on our problems here at home, while ignoring our interests around the world," the Washington Post reported Bush saying at a White House summit on international development in Washington. "This would be a serious mistake. America is committed, and America must stay committed, to international development for reasons that remain true regardless of the ebb and flow of the markets."

Being committed is different than being able to afford to be committed. Yet given the Washington climate of borrow today, borrow tomorrow, many near-term foreign concerns over the U.S. spigot of economic aid drying up may be groundless. The Bush White House, like many administrations before it, has never learned the hardest word for parents to tell their give-me-more-now relations. No.

If elected, Barack Obama says he would double international aid to $50-billion though that commitment may be delayed by the cost of the financial bailout. As president, a less specific yet more experienced John McCain says he would remain "generous" but would focus more on streamlining how foreign aid is doled out. He also has pledged to balance the federal budget by 2013.

Good luck. Let's go to the grisly numbers for just a moment. For the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, the gap between revenue collected by the government compared with what it spent is a hefty $455-billion. In sheer dollars, that's a recordbreaker. That sum exceeds 3 percent of GDP, making it one of our larger recent deficits, though still smaller by percentage than President Reagan's years of defense-bingeing or the end of World War II.

It's just the beginning. The financial bailout, whose size seems to be increasing every week, will deplete federal coffers and boost our national IOU. Peter R. Orszag, director of the Congressional Budget Office, says the nation is already headed for a sustained period of budget deficits on a scale never seen before. He's talking about $7-trillion in cumulative deficits piled up over the next 10 years.

That could be a conservative forecast, warns David M. Walker. The former comptroller general of the United States conducted a nationwide Fiscal Wake-Up Tour chronicled in the documentary film I.O.U.S.A, Walker recently became president and CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which was established to alert Americans about the forthcoming fiscal crisis.

The Peterson-affiliated Concord Coalition is perhaps the best and latest critic of federal deficit sleights of hand. In recent years official budgets have used a number of familiar scoring tactics that understate likely expenses and overstate likely revenue, the group says.

"Tax cuts are enacted with 'sunsets' to hide the long-term revenue cost of making them permanent," the coalition argues. "War spending is assumed to disappear after the latest supplemental spending bill spends out.

"Phantom savings are achieved by assuming that Medicare physician reimbursement rates will be slashed. It is becoming increasingly difficult to know where the budget is headed, even in the short-term, by looking at official documents."

Some academics believe the country's financial crisis will put more pressure on America to reduce its foreign commitments as domestic lobbying re-channels limited resources into national needs.

In comments in last week's Wall Street Journal, Princeton University's Aaron Friedberg and Commentary senior editor Gabriel Schoenfeld warned the world will become more dangerous and less connected should the United States decide it is too economically challenged to sustain its foreign presence.

The authors cited a recent survey by the Chicago Council on World Affairs that found that 36 percent of respondents agreed that the United States should "stay out of world affairs," the highest number recorded since this question was first asked in 1947.

Their conclusion: "The economic crisis could be the straw that breaks the camel's back."

They could be on to something. Especially if the "boomtown feel in the capital" and federal spending spree persist.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

"Signs of hard times getting harder in the U.S. are appearing every day. ... But there is little evidence of belt-tightening in Washington. While the rest of the country switches into austerity mode, there's almost a boomtown feel in the capital, where a federal spending spree is rapidly driving the federal deficit to record heights."

Mark Kukis, Time magazine, Oct. 20

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