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OUR OPINION: Keeping the American Dream alive

How much is a billion dollars? Let's ask that question this way: If you had a billion dollars, and you spent it at the rate of $1,000 a day, how long would it take you to go broke? Two thousand years. That's how much a billion dollars is. And tha...

How much is a billion dollars?

Let's ask that question this way: If you had a billion dollars, and you spent it at the rate of $1,000 a day, how long would it take you to go broke?

Two thousand years.

That's how much a billion dollars is. And that's why our nation's $53 trillion fiscal hole should be a centerpiece of national politics.

Thanks to the Peterson Foundation, it soon may be.

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The Peterson Foundation was set up by Peter Peterson, a Wall Street tycoon and former head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In February, Peterson pledged a billion dollars -- most of his fortune -- to start the foundation and broadcast its message: that the U.S. has promised too much and set aside too little when it comes to entitlements.

You've heard that rant before, notably from Ross Perot way back in Campaign 1992. Peterson, a former U.S. Commerce Secretary, himself has highlighted the issue for decades.

But in recent years, a few things have changed. The most important is the cast of characters who now are echoing Peterson's plea. They include both the Heritage Foundation and the Brookings Institution, the leading conservative and liberal think tanks in Washington. Their agreement jolts like an electric shock because it declares that this issue truly transcends partisanship and should concern every American -- Democrat, Republican and independent alike.

That's the effect David Walker's involvement has, too.

Walker is a former comptroller general of the U.S. He resigned in March to head the Peterson Foundation.

His presence lends enormous credibility to the enterprise and its mission, which is to "enhance the public understanding of the nature and urgency of selected key sustainability challenges that threaten America's future, to propose sensible and workable solutions ... and to build public will to do something about them."

After all, it was one thing to hear presidential candidate Perot and watch him flip his fiscal charts. It's another to see Walker -- a man who spent nine years as the U.S. government's chief accountability officer -- saying that this nation has reached a true turning point in its history.

"I would argue that the most serious threat to the U.S. is not someone hiding in a cave in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but our own fiscal irresponsibility," Walker told "60 Minutes" reporter Steve Kroft in 2007.

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"We don't face an immediate crisis. ... (But) we suffer from a fiscal cancer. It is growing within us. And if we do not treat it, it could have catastrophic consequences for our country."

The issue is not the discretionary items in the budget such as the National Park Service. Nor is it the Defense Department. While the Pentagon's share of the federal budget has grown, the growth is in line with historical norms and isn't projected to balloon.

That word "balloon" is the key because it points to the core problem: entitlements, especially Medicare and, to a much lesser extent, Social Security.

Generous pensions and retiree health benefits haunt General Motors and other companies. Similar costs recently drove Vallejo, Calif., to file for bankruptcy, as the Herald's July 13 editorial described.

And the U.S. government isn't immune. Medicare and Medicaid were 2 percent of the federal budget in 1967. They're 21 percent today.

Basically, growing health care costs coupled with the Baby Boomers' coming retirement puts the U.S. on the hook for trillions. The Concord Coalition in Washington puts it this way: "Entitlements and interest may consume all federal revenues in under 20 years."

What to do? You already know: The government must spend less, save more and reform entitlements. Translated, this means cutting benefits, raising taxes or both.

It's a tall order but not an impossible one. That's where the Peterson Foundation will help: The foundation is sponsoring several national awareness efforts, including "I.O.U.S.A.," a feature-length documentary that'll premiere next month. The movie "may be to the U.S. economy what 'An Inconvenient Truth' was to the environment," Reuters news service declared.

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The foundation and its bipartisan supporters have an urgent message. Americans should listen -- and insist that their presidential candidates do, too.

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