TRUMP: We've got to get rid of the $19 trillion in debt. WOODWARD: How long would that take? TRUMP: I think I could do it fairly quickly, because of the fact the numbers ... WOODWARD: What's fairly quickly? TRUMP: Well, I would say over a period of eight years.
It's practically impossible to rank Donald Trump's various pronouncements based on some kind of ridiculousness scale, simply because the frequency and volume of the Republican's outlandish rhetoric is overwhelming. But if such a list were to come together, yesterday brought a new, top contender.
The GOP candidate sat down for a 96-minute interview with the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, and though they covered quite a bit of ground, this was probably the most jaw-dropping exchange.
Not to put too fine a point on this, but Trump would be just as likely to grow wings and fly around the White House complex while shooting lasers out of his eyes.
In fact, this is the sort of exchange that suggests Trump probably hasn't looked up the meaning of the word "debt" -- or "trillion."
I can appreciate why some of these words may get a little overwhelming for typical Americans who don't pay too much attention to the details, so let's quickly review. Almost every year for generations, the United States has spent more than it's taken in, resulting in "the deficit." In the most recent fiscal year, the deficit was about $439 billion -- which may sound painfully large, but it's actually nearly $1 trillion smaller than the deficit President Obama inherited from the Bush/Cheney administration, and relative to the size of the U.S. economy, it's fairly small, at least by historic standards.
When new deficits are added to old deficits, they cumulatively become "the national debt." In the Bush/Cheney era, the debt roughly doubled, in the Obama era, it's roughly doubled again, reaching about $19 trillion. (Funny story: when Bill Clinton left office, the deficit didn't exist, and the country was actually running a big surplus, taking in more than we were spending. The United States was on track to pay off the entirety of the national debt by 2010. Bush/Cheney, however, preferred tax cuts and wars, none of which were paid for.)
In Republican circles, there's been quite a bit of talk about how best to reduce the deficit to zero. That's not, however, what Trump told Bob Woodward -- the Republican presidential hopeful intends to eliminate both the deficit and the $19 trillion debt in just eight years.
On its face, that's an insanely impossible goal. Trump is effectively promising to deliver a $2.4 trillion surplus every year for eight consecutive years. To put that in perspective, the largest surplus in modern U.S. history came in 2000, when the surplus was about $300 billion. Trump is saying he can create surpluses eight times larger -- which is bonkers -- every year of his two terms.
But wait, it gets worse. Trump is not only counting on $2.4 trillion surplus every year for eight years, he intends to pull off this trick while cutting taxes by trillions of dollars and not touching spending on the military or Social Security.
Go ahead, try to pick an adjective -- "absurd," "foolish," "dumb," etc. -- with the realization that there are no words that fully capture such an outlandish platform. At its root, what Trump is presenting is a lie. He's telling Americans he can deliver on a goal that simply cannot be met, at least on the terms the Republican is presenting.
Trump would be just as credible vowing to bring peace to the Middle East, while reconciling quantum mechanics and general relativity, and in his spare time, solving the Kobayashi Maru.
Postscript: I'm probably tilting at windmills here, but it's worth noting from time to time that we're stuck in the wrong conversation. Reducing the deficit and paying off the debt probably shouldn't even be seen as worthwhile goals, at least in the short term.
As Matt Yglesias noted the other day, "As of March 30, the inflation-adjusted interest rate on 30-year bonds was a staggeringly low 0.86 percent, and the inflation-adjusted interest rate on five-year bonds was an even more staggeringly lower negative 0.26 percent. Global investors, in short, are very eager to buy the federal government's bonds. So eager that they have pushed the interest the government needs to pay down to freakishly low levels -- below zero for shorter-term securities."
With conditions like these, the fiscally responsible move would be to borrow like crazy and invest heavily in domestic infrastructure. But that won't happen, in part because Americans elected a Republican Congress, and in part because of faulty assumptions about the deficit and the debt being "bad" problems in need of a solution. Trump's nuts for thinking he can pay off $19 trillion in debt in eight years, but the angle to this that too often goes overlooked is the fact that paying off the national debt isn't even a good idea.