By 2014, the world's biggest economies are likely to have public debt equal to their GDP. This is not necessarily debilitating: many households owe more on their mortgage than they make in a year. But it is not something we should be happy about.
Critics are right to wring their hands about the deficit that Obama's building up. But the commentary on the right is annoying on two points. One, while Bush was stacking up IOUs like leaves in fall, they were silent on the issue of deficit spending. Two, they gloss over the fact that Obama is going to have outrageous deficits because he started with outrageous deficits. $1 trillion of the deficit from this year is inherited from Bush.
We've had worse deficits (as a percentage of GDP) than Bush's, but not during an expansion. And not so quickly after we were running a surplus.
The Republican Party used to be well populated by fiscal conservatives. That is, people who liked to avoid deficit spending. The GOP was hijacked (a story well told by Jonathan Chait in his book, The Big Con) and all the fiscal conservatives were muzzled. At least until now.
I don't even mind that the fiscal conservatives have been given a voice again. I think it is healthy. But until they start their critique with a expose of the massive spending increase and deficits run up by their own party for the 6 years it owned Congress and the White House, their words lack credibility. Bush's budgets became the new baseline from which any stimulus package had to start.
By definition, a stimulus package will increase the deficit. If Obama had - like Bush - inherited a surplus, his stimulus package would not have required huge deficits. It might not have even required deficits.
It's important not to be quiet about the deficit. It is just as important to be honest about its cause.