Ten Trillion and Counting

Introduction

national debt as a percentage of gdp

All of the federal government's efforts to stem the tide of the financial meltdown have added hundreds of billions of dollars to an already staggering national debt, a sum that is expected to double over the next 10 years to more than $23 trillion. In Ten Trillion and Counting, FRONTLINE traces the politics behind this mounting debt and investigates what some say is a looming crisis that makes the current financial situation pale in comparison.

The journey begins as FRONTLINE correspondent Forrest Sawyer takes viewers to a secret location: the Treasury's debt auction room, where the U.S. government sells securities backed by the "full faith and credit of the United States." On this day, the government is auctioning $67 billion of Treasury securities. The money borrowed will be used to fund services and programs that the government cannot pay for through tax revenues alone.

Observers warn that the United States' reliance on borrowing to fund essential programs is a dangerous gamble. For the first time, investors are beginning to question the ability of federal government to meet its growing financial obligations, and fading confidence can have dire consequences. "You might have a situation where there is one day when the government says we need to sell several billion dollars of bonds, and nobody shows," Economist reporter Greg Ip tells FRONTLINE. "No money to pay the Social Security checks, no money to give to the states for their Medicaid programs. Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut."

Yet more borrowing is exactly what the Obama administration plans to do: hundreds of billions to bail out the banks and other financial institutions; tens of billions more for the auto industry; $275 billion for homeowners and mortgage lenders; and a giant $787 billion stimulus package to jump-start an economy spiraling downward. Just like the Bush administration before it, Obama and his team are going to borrow big.

"That's the paradox of the situation that we're in now," observes Matt Miller, author of The Tyranny of Dead Ideas. "Government has got to run big deficits to stimulate the economy, deficits that would have been unthinkable ... because government's the only entity with the wherewithal to prop up a demand in the economy when businesses and consumers are all pulling back."

posted march 24, 2009

ten trillion home page · watch online · dvd/transcript · credits · site map
FRONTLINE series home · privacy policy · journalistic guidelines

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
Web Site Copyright ©1995-2014 WGBH Educational Foundation
main photograph © corbis, all rights reserved