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updated: 2/17/2011 5:38 AM

What comes after a trillion?

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In the waning days of the previous millennium, President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, became the first president to balance the budget since Republican Richard Nixon and his budget director, the late Bob Mayo of Bartlett, accomplished the feat in 1969.

Noting that inflation was at its lowest point in 30 years, unemployment was even lower, homeownership was at an all-time high and the nation was pretty much at peace, Clinton was pondering the best ways for our federal government to spend our surplus. Meanwhile, equally optimistic Republicans talked about cutting taxes to let the people keep the windfall.

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A few hardy suburban souls who volunteered with The Concord Coalition -- a nonpartisan, grass-roots organization dedicated to educating the public about federal budget issues and their consequences -- suggested using that surplus to pay down the whopping $5 trillion debt.

Our federal legislators paid off a little of that debt before being seduced by spending increases and tax cuts. Throw in a couple of wars, a financial crisis and more tax cuts, and that worrisome national debt now tops $14 trillion and change.

For those people who were warning in the 1900s about the future risks if our politicians spent a generation kicking that can down the road, the future is now.

"I jumped on this thing in the early '90s, and it's the same message. It's just the numbers are higher," says John Szalinski, a 43-year-old Mundelein husband and father of three who appears to have an itch to become just as active in The Concord Coalition in the coming years as he was in his 20s.

"Now we're back with a vengeance," says Sara L. Imhof, a policy analyst and Midwest Regional Director for The Concord Coalition. A $14 trillion debt apparently has the potential to grab our attention in a way $5 trillion could not.

"People care about it, but they are feeling less and less able to do anything about it," Imhof says. Until now.

The current crisis creates an environment where "that message can get out there," says Szalinski. He says he and his wife, Kathy, get inspired to stop passing along our problems to future generations just by looking at their three children, ages 12, 10 and 7.

"Because I'm a parent, it scares the heck out of me," says Szalinski, who works for a medical device manufacturer. "We all have skin in this game."

Once Americans understand that our government can't continue to cut taxes and spend money, politicians may have the freedom to honestly address the issues, Szalinski figures. Spending cuts and tax increases, defense spending, and Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare must be discussed.

"We have this in our character," Szalinski says, recalling moments when Americans sacrificed during wars and the Depression to make the future better. "We can step up and make tough choices."

When she started the Institute for Truth in Accounting out of Northbrook a decade ago, Sheila Weinberg could see doomsday scenarios way off in the future, Now, she says, "we seem to be going down that road."

Instead of arguing about whether President Obama and the Democrats are to blame for that staggering debt or whether the problem started with Republican Ronald Reagan and trickled down to George W. Bush, we need to focus on us, and what we are going to do about it.

"The American people need to grow up," Weinberg scolds. "Right now they are getting more than they are paying for."

While he goes into far greater detail in the "U.S. Federal Budget" article he wrote for Wikipedia, Concord volunteer David Doney of Palatine says the quick solution is to have legislators with "the guts to explain what is really happening" instead of worrying about winning elections.

"People need to get educated," says Doney, 41, a CPA who is chief auditor for a global moving company based in Westmont. "At some point we've got to raise taxes and cut spending, and people aren't going to like it."

• • •

In Tuesday's column, my accompanying graphic contained an error. The curtain for "My Occasional Torment" opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Center Stage Theater, 1665 Quincy Ave. in Naperville. For more information, phone (630) 470-6393.

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