Your debt: going on a trillion

Question: What's as certain as the return of spring, the approach of April 15 income-tax deadlines, and press revelations about the latest squabbling in the New York Yankees training camp?

For starters, one might point to the latest call for an increase in the US national debt. We say "latest" because the debt -- like the skyrocketing rate of inflation that has helped fuel it in recent years -- seems to be headed in only one direction these days. That, of course, is up. In asking for a $50 billion increase in the debt ceiling -- from the current limit of $935.1 billion to $985 billion -- President Reagan is merely doing what President Carter would have had to do had he been reelected. In fact, Mr. Reagan, true to his conservative instincts, is asking for a lower ceiling, as the previous administration would have required an increase to $990 billion to accommodate its proposed budget increases.

Connoisseurs of the debt -- mainly eagle- eyed economists surrounded by portable computers, slide rules, and reams of yellow legal pads -- know the darkest secret of all. Namely, that sometime in the spring or summer of 1982 Mr. Reagan will probably have to urge the ceiling be raised past the once-unthinkable one-trillion-dollar mark. And that, ironically, will take place under a conservative Republican administration.

What does it all mean, this almost unimaginable obligation owed by the American public? It means per-capita annual interest payments alone of over $ 300 and a total debt obligation per person of well over $4,000. But there is more to be said. While many economists believe the debt to be far too high, the total debt, as both a percentage of GNP and in relation to the total of all federal, state, local, and private indebtedness, has actually fallen from the end of World War II. The drop from 1945 to the early 1970s was quite sharp. In the '70s the debt held fairly steady.

But that is no cause for complacency. The debt remains too high -- and bringing it down is a task for everyone. As a federal economist notes, the debt is a "product of federal outlays and receipts." In other words, if Uncle Sam stops spending so freely, perhaps that huge debt will start to drop. But then again, perhaps not. It all depends on how w ell the economy -- and every contributor to it -- performs

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