Analysis: The billionaire behind the National Debt Clock has had it with Trump

Analysis: The billionaire behind the National Debt Clock has had it with Trump


When US government debt topped a trillion dollars for the first time in the early 1980s, New York real estate magnate Seymour Durst sent every member of Congress a holiday card that said: ‘‘Happy New Year! Your share of the federal debt is $5,000.’’

When lawmakers refused to act, Durst went further, putting up the National Debt Clock in 1989 on a building he owned just off New York City’s bustling Times Square. He hoped to shame lawmakers into action.

Three decades later, the clock is still running, yet US debt has skyrocketed and Congress ignores it. Republicans, who campaigned on balancing the budget, have added more than $1.5 trillion to the debt in the past year.

The result is that by the end of 2018, the nation will hit milestone: The federal government’s total debt (known as debt held by the public) will exceed all debt that US households have for mortgages, credit cards, cars, student loans, and other personal loans for the first time in modern history, according to JPMorgan Chase.

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Seymour’s normally private son, Douglas Durst, manages the National Debt Clock and the family’s real estate empire now. He felt compelled to speak out after what he calls the ‘‘worst months’’ he’s ever seen for fiscal policy.

Douglas Durst has a message for Congress: Tax the rich more.

‘‘I support higher taxes on people like me,’’ said Durst in an interview from his office in midtown Manhattan with sweeping views of the city. Forbes estimates the Durst Organization is worth more than $5 billion. ‘‘I think America has more of a revenue problem than a spending problem.’’

When his father put up the National Debt Clock, total gross US debt was just shy of $3 trillion — or about $12,000 a person. Today it is over $21 trillion, or about $65,000 a person.

Economists typically focus on debt held by the public, which is currently about $16 trillion, because that is the amount the government truly owes creditors (the rest of the debt is money one government agency owes another). Debt held by the public will top $127,000 per household by the end of the year, according to JPMorgan. Personal debt per household will be about $126,000.

‘‘This is an astonishing statistic,’’ said David Kelly, chief global strategist at JPMorgan Funds. ‘‘Americans have a lot of debt. I always feel nervous signing a mortgage or a car loan. I think, can I afford all this debt? Then you realize the government is busy borrowing even more money on your behalf.’’

The United States hasn’t had this high a debt level as a percent of gross domestic product since the World War II era, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. It’s expected to grow quickly as Social Security, Medicare, and interest payments balloon.

In good economic times, the government is usually able to shrink the deficit, but the latest data out this week shows the federal government is on track to spend about $900 billion more this year than the revenue it is bringing in. The last time the unemployment rate was this low, the government ran a surplus.

Durst thinks it’s inevitable taxes will have to go up, and he’s baffled that President Trump would give a tax cut to wealthy Americans like him. Durst and his father, who died in 1995, have donated heavily to Democrats over the years, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets.Org.

‘‘We’re mortgaging our children’s future. It’s one thing to borrow money for infrastructure investment, but this. . .’’ said Durst. He makes an exasperated face and his eyebrows shoot up over his circular tortoiseshell glasses. ‘‘The tax cut was an overall step in the wrong direction. Nobody who has any background in economics thought the tax bill was a good idea.’’

‘‘Fix the debt’’ has long been a Republican rallying cry and many GOP leaders have seized on the debt clock as a useful prop. Mitt Romney and Paul D. Ryan brought a mock debt clock to campaign stops on the 2012 presidential election trail, and Representative Jeb Hensarling, Republican from Texas, has projected a debt clock on the House Financial Services Committee room since he became committee chair several years ago.

The National Debt Clock helped propel Congress to enact balanced budgets from 1998 to 2001, but the fiscal soundness was short lived. The federal government has spent more money than it brings in every year since then.


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