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The Debt Dilemma
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February 15, 2008

To many Americans, the national debt is an impenetrable problem of charts and graphs — worrisome, certainly, but too big, too complicated, too specialized to understand.

Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson, of Public Citizen, are out to change that with a simple message: the federal debt is indeed a big problem, but it can be understood by everyone and solved together. Bittle and Johnson join Bill Moyers on THE JOURNAL to talk about their irreverent book about the national debt, WHERE DOES THE MONEY GO, and the user-friendly Web site they help maintain as part of a nationwide project to educate the public about the national debt. FACING UP has been developed in partnership with The Brookings Institution, The Concord Coalition, the Heritage Foundation, Public Agenda and Viewpoint Learning.

The deficit and the debt.
According to the website, FACING UP, when we talk about a budget crisis:

"We are really talking about two tightly interrelated problems here, the deficit and the debt. The short-term problem we face is that the federal government routinely runs a deficit — that is, in most years the government is spending much more than it takes in."

In WHERE DOES THE MONEY GO?, Bittle and Johnson list six things everyone needs to know to understand the federal budget crisis:

The Budget Debate: Parking-lot Version:

1. For thirty-one out of the last thirty-five years, the country has spent more on government programs and services than it has collected in taxes.

2. Every year the government comes up short, it borrows money to cover the difference. We've now built up a very big debt —roughly $9 trillion, and yes, that is trillion with a t.

3. The country will have humongous additional expenses over the next couple of decades as the baby boomers begin to retire and need more medical care.

4. There is no realistic way government can lower taxes (or even keep them at current levels), spend money on everything people want the government to do (at least according to the polls), and still end up with a balanced budget.

5. If we keep on going the way we're going, the debt will get bigger and begin to endanger the U.S. Economy and our own personal finances and plans. And the government won't have enough money to pay for Social Security and Medicare for the boomers and still do what most of us expect government to do.

6. A substantial portion of the country's debt is held in foreign countries. Right now, these foreign investors consider U.S. Government bonds one of the safest places in the world to put their money, but they could decide at some point that Europe or China or some other place is a better bet. This would be the global equivalent of a store clerk seizing your credit card and cutting it up.

Reprinted by permission. To find out more about the book, visit PUBLIC AGENDA ONLINE

Scott Bittle

Scott Bittle, photo by Robin HollandScott Bittle manages public opinion research and analysis at Public Agenda, including both its research department and PUBLIC AGENDA ONLINE, which has been twice nominated for a prestigious Webby Award by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences.

An experienced editor and reporter who has worked for both online and print publications, Mr. Bittle is involved in the production of citizen education guides and is lead author of Public Agenda's Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index. He also served as an exit poll analyst for NBC News in the 2006 elections.

Mr. Bittle holds a Bachelor of Arts in communications and journalism from Rowan University of New Jersey.

Jean Johnson

Jean Johnson, photo by Robin HollandJean Johnson is Executive Vice President of Public Agenda and head of its Education Insights division, which works to enhance public and community engagement in public education. As a member of Public Agenda's senior staff, she has developed and managed research and communications projects on a wide variety of issues. She has authored or co-authored Public Agenda studies on education, families, religion, race relations, manners and civility, retirement, welfare, and health care.

Along with WHERE DOES THE MONEY GO, Ms. Johnson is also the principal author of LIFE AFTER HIGH SCHOOL: YOUNG PEOPLE TALK ABOUT THEIR HOPES AND PROSPECTS, and WHERE WE ARE NOW: 12 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT PUBLIC OPINION AND PUBLIC SCHOOLS. She is lead author of REALITY CHECK, which tracks attitudes among parents, students, teachers, principals, superintendents and others on key education reform topics.

In addition to her work at Public Agenda, Ms. Johnson is a director of Sugal Records, a small, New York-based classical music recording company. Ms. Johnson graduated from Mount Holyoke College, and holds master's degrees from Brown University and Simmons College.

*Judith Davidson Moyers is a Trustee of the Public Agenda Foundation.

Guest photos by Robin Holland

Published on February 15, 2008.

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References and Reading:
The National Debt

Debt to the Penny
The US Treasury Department's Web site tracks the national debt down to the penny.

Death and Taxes
Jess Bachman has created a large-scale poster/online image graphically representing the federal budget for 2008.

New York Times Topics: Federal Budget
Read years of New York Times coverage of the federal budget.

Judith Davidson Moyers, the Executive Editor of Bill Moyers Journal, is a trustee of the Public Agenda Foundation.

Also This Week:

Bill Moyers talks with Susan Jacoby about her new book, THE AGE OF AMERICAN UNREASON.

Photographer Lori Grinker takes viewers to Amman, Jordan for a devastating look at the fate of Iraqis displaced by the conflict.

Does America's $9 trillion federal debt mean we are mortgaging our future and jeopardizing individual savings, healthcare, and retirement for generations to come? Bill Moyers gets a reality check from Public Agenda's Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson, co-authors of WHERE DOES THE MONEY GO?: YOUR GUIDED TOUR TO THE FEDERAL BUDGET CRISIS.

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