Let's explore a lousy analogy.
The 2011 budget is projected to have a $1.5 trillion deficit. If we linearize that, that's $4.1 billion a day. Imagine that like a speed... the rate at which we're spending money that we don't have.
The total federal debt is some $14.292 trillion.
Let me spell that out. $14,292,000,000,000.
If the $4.1 billion/day is like our speed, the $14.292 trillion is how far we've travelled into a dark, forbidding forest of debt and ROUS's.
The current debt ceiling is $14.294 trillion. This is like a sign we've stuck out in the forest saying "We're not going to go any deeper into this dangerous forest than this."
Of course, we've stuck this sign deeper and deeper in the forest over the past few years. In fact, it's been increased ten times in the last ten years.
Observation #1: the debt limit is just a number. There's nothing particularly special about it (though it's obviously a huge and obscene amount of money) and certainly nothing more special about the current limit than the previous nine, or the previous 50. So any ideologues pushing the idea that the current debt ceiling must not, under any circumstances, be raised, are just full of shit.
Okay, now as we hurtle toward doom in the forest, our car of state has two primary controls. The gas and the brake. The gas is our spending, and we've certainly been stepping on the gas recently, burning up money at an alarming rate. The brake is our tax revenue; the more brake we apply, the slower we'll hurtle into the forest. And one might (if one were an ideologue) make puns on how taxes act as a brake on our economy.
Some would have you believe that we can solve the problem by merely taking our foot off the gas (spending cuts only), while others favor taking our foot off the gas and applying the brake. And this is where a lot of the arguments are right now, but I'd rather focus on
Observation #2: both plans involve easing off the gas, i.e. spending cuts. The magnitude of cuts required in either scenario are pretty severe. There is no way that we can just trim some unneeded fat and get to safer territory. We will be cutting services that people need. One worry I have is that some sort of mish-mash short-term plan will get approved for the next fiscal year, but hidden in the fine print are what amount to IOU's that will make a balanced budget for right now, but only by deferring spending on (what everyone agrees is necessary) into the future, so that next year the same problem will be facing us, only worse. (In effect, that's what we've been doing for the past umpteen years, so why stop now?)
Thinking more in math terms... If our variable, x, is the total debt, then
x = debt = where we are now in the forest = $14.3 trillion in the hole = bad
the rate of change of x = how fast we're spending money = how fast we're moving deeper into the forest = $4 billion a day = bad
The next derivative is also a fruitful concept:
the rate of change of the rate of change of x = how rapidly our rate of spending is changing = how rapidly we are accelerating into the forest.
But is that value bad or good?
If you look at, say, Medicare spending projections, we see that a large chunk of our public spending is indeed accelerating. Not only does the number get bigger, but it gets bigger even as a % of GDP (which is itself growing (we hope)). The situation with social security looks pretty bad as well.
These projections are essentially telling us that we must press down the accelerator to meet our obligations in the coming years.
So, x is bad
the velocity of x is bad
and even the acceleration of x is bad
Observation #3: the only way to achieve a long-term solution is to deal with the acceleration. A short-term solution may give ideologues reason to happily cry "Balanced budget!" but the math of acceleration will rapidly crush them if nothing else is done.
Thinking of our gas and brake again, I really don't think we can brake enough to make up for our accelerating obligations. I'm not as fearful of taxes as some, but accelerating taxes does give me the willies. More importantly, it's politically unfeasible - the ghost of Jarvis would smite Congress into ashes.
Therefore, our long-term solution requires dealing with this acceleration problem. I'm amenable to an actual process of healthcare reform (as opposed to the health insurance malarkey that we got) which might lower costs and stem the acceleration that way. But more likely, I think we've reached the point where the rational solution is to whittle away at SS and Medicare benefits (and other government services) for the foreseeable future.
Many of my cohort have long joked that Social Security wasn't going to be around for us. That joke is about to get even more real than the age increases that have already been put in place.
People have bitched for decades about the US mortgaging their children's and grandchildren's future. Well, they were right. We are their children and grandchildren. And we're going to have to fucking buckle down, expect less, and pay more. And for what? So that our elders can have had a better life than we will. Suck it.