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Posted by on Dec 3, 2012 in At TMV, Business, Economy, Media, Politics, Science & Technology, Society | 9 comments

How You Can Help Reduce Our National Debt — At Least Symbolically

As we are bombarded 24/7 with gloom and doom about our nation’s national debt, budget deficit and other dire fiscal problems, including the doomsday prediction that we are about to go off the “fiscal cliff,” it is no wonder Americans are puzzled. confused and nervous.

But besides worrying about it, firing off letters to our representatives, over-hyping it, pooh-poohing it and everything in between, what can the average Joe Blow do about it?

According to National Public Radio (NPR), some Americans are opening their wallets to help pay down the national debt.

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Treasury announced that it had received $7.7 million in donations in fiscal year 2012 from individual citizens to help pay down the national debt. This amount is substantially more than the Treasury has received over the last five years — an average of about of about $2.7 million or 2.8 million, according to Joyce Harris, a spokesperson for the Bureau of the Public Debt. In my opinion, this increase may reflect the real anxiety many Americans feel about our financial crisis.

Now, $8 million is not very much. Actually it is a miniscule amount when one considers the staggering size of our national debt.

One of the concerned Americans who donated this year to lower our national debt is a retired Vietnam veteran, Ron Berry, who gave $50 and who hopes to continue to make such donations, according to NPR.

And, yes, there is a web site and, of course, an electronic form to do just that. Concerned citizens can go to to make their donations by credit card (hopefully taking care not to exceed their own debt limits), or they can send a check directly to the Bureau of the Public Debt or submit a separate check when paying their federal income taxes.

But noble and commendable as these gestures are — and in the context of our debt and deficits they are just that: gestures — they will hardly make a dent in our outstanding national debt or budget deficit.

According to CNNMoney, the $7.7 million represents just 0.000007% (count the zeroes behind the decimal point, five of them) of the approximately $1.1 trillion deficit the U.S. ran in the latest fiscal year. (Add almost two more zeroes to figure what fraction of the total national debt the $8 million represents.)

NPR, however, has a more imaginative way to make the comparison.

Using a five-pound bag of rice to represent the budget deficit for this year, NPR estimates that a single grain of rice — out of the more than 140,000 in the bag — represents the $7.7 million the American people donated to the Treasury.

Depressing, isn’t it?

Bracing for more depressing fiscal news, I decided to check the national debt, deficit and budget figures myself.

There are several web sites with so-called debt clocks and other real-time clocks.

I found the clocks (scores of them) at the most comprehensive, useful and up-to-date (real-time) ones.

The number of “counters,” or clocks, red and green ones, ticking up and down, whirling away and depicting just about every financial indicator — national, state or world-wide — is just amazing.

As of this writing, the U.S. national debt (red) is $16.333 trillion and climbing. (The U.S. public debt subject to limit is $16.209 trillion, and climbing.) The national debt ceiling is $16.394 trillion.

Out of this, each taxpayer owes $142,247 and each citizen, $51,870.

The net interest on the debt is $258.6 billion.

U.S. federal spending is at $3.542 trillion, but ticking down, while U.S. federal tax revenues are at $2.438 trillion and ticking up, making for a U.S. federal budget deficit of $1.104 trillion, going down — all three clocks going in the right direction, for a change.

Also in the green and ticking in the right direction, Up, is the U.S. Gross Domestic Product, ticking steadily upwards past $15.496 trillion.

Thus in all the gloom and doom, a little bit of daylight.

Finally, a couple of tidbits on Americans donating to help pay down the national debt.

According to CNNMoney:

The whole idea of accepting donations to help pay down the national debt didn’t exist until 1961, when an anonymous estate left $20 million to the Bureau of Public Debt for just that purpose. Congress had to pass a law in order to be able to accept the money, and a total of $85 million has poured into the bureau’s coffers in the 51 years since then.

There is no “average’ gift,” or donor for that matter, according to [Mckayla] Braden [a spokeswoman for the Bureau of the Public Debt]. Some donations come from estates, when a person dies and leaves their money to Uncle Sam, but plenty of living taxpayers pitch in, and so do children.

“I once had a classroom send me a small bags of coins,” Braden said, “which we don’t really want. Cash or checks are preferred.”

CNN adds that “In fact, South Dakota Republican Senator John Thune has introduced a bill, known as the Buffett Rule Act of 2011, that would allow taxpayers to send in donations along with their federal tax returns, on top of any tax owed, to reduce the public debt.”

“If national debt is indeed one of the greatest concerns in America today, maybe tax returns should provide for a way to recognize those who want to do something about it,” Sepp said, according to CNN.

Note: Some numbers have been rounded.


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  • People can’t fathom big numbers. Collecting $8M towards the debt is a perfect example: I’m sure people thought they could help, but honestly, every American would have to pay something like $50K each to pay down our debt. That’s a chunk of change most can’t understand.

    The same is with charities. You hear lots of talk about “let’s kill social welfare programs and let charities do it”. There was an interview on the radio with a woman who espoused those ideas. She was so proud that her community raised $6K for those in need over Thanksgiving. That’s a wonderful thing, but that would probably only fix one good meal for everyone in need in her town. There’s no way charities can cover that slack.

    This is a HUGE problem we have. Most people can’t wrap their heads around the magnitude of it all.

  • Dorian
    What is never part of the discussion is Foreign Policy/Defense Spending. We spend more on defense than the other 13 top countries combined. How much of that is Defense of the people of the United States and how much of it is defense of corporate interests. The question few ask is how much “defense’ can we afford? People in the middle east hate us not for a freedom but because we have been meddling in their affairs for decades. We leave the ME and they will go back to fighting each other. Somehow increased defense spending is OK stimulus but fixing our collapsing infrastructure is not. We have to differentiate between things it would be nice to do and we would like to do and what we can afford to do.
    Yes we need to look at Medicare but a study by Kaiser shows that increasing the eligabilty age will actually cost money – the healthiest members will no longer be paying into it. We could save money by reducing the age.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Ron and Barky,

    Thanks for your comments.

    Democrats certainly want to make Foreign Policy/Defense Spending part of the discussion. On the other hand, Republicans feel we are decimating our military (Remember Romney’s claim that our military capabilities are declining and that our Navy is smaller than it has been since 1917?).

    As I have said many times, I am all for a strong military, but by balancing such with our responsibilities and priorities at home — and Medicare and/or ACA is one of those priorities.

    Barky, I agree, just as donating $$$ to reduce the debt is more like a feel good act and is a drop in the bucket, so is — in a way — the idea of letting charities take care of our less fortunate, their medical needs, etc. While charities do have their place and role and do some very good work, they will never be able to become the safety net only a government can provide.

    Best wishes for your Mom, Ron.

  • slamfu

    “People can’t fathom big numbers.”

    One of the truest observations I have ever seen on this site. This fact is the cornerstone of most political propaganda.

  • The_Ohioan

    If everyone coughed up their $50,000 share, how much could their taxes be lowered? Maybe it would pay off. Maybe not….

  • slamfu

    Yea, but I’d have to get a loan for that $50k 🙂 I’d rather let the govt handle that debt, I heard they can actually MAKE money if they have to. Sounds like a good quality to have in someone carrying $16 Trillion in debt.

  • zusa1

    O, If someone did pay their $50,000 share, they would be deemed “rich” and still not get a break. Kind of a catch22.

  • Jim Satterfield

    People’s inability to deal with large numbers also explains some of the problems people have with science. Science deals with the too big to imagine and the too small to imagine, whether in terms of mass, distance or time.

  • If everyone coughed up their $50,000 share, how much could their taxes be lowered? Maybe it would pay off. Maybe not

    Interest on the debt is about 10% of the federal budget. So taxes wouldn’t be lowered by much.

    That’s the problem with spending more than you have: you have to cut A LOT before you see direct savings. In the Feds case, about 40%! That’s the size of our annual budget, and that’s why cutting spending alone won’t help, there’s no way we can cut out 40% of the government’s budget.

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