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Economy & Business

The $60 trillion question: What can be done about the national debt?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 19, 2008 - They didn't pass the hat after Tuesday night's screening of the documentary "I.O.U.S.A.'' at the Missouri History Museum, but audience members did learn what their individual share of the country's nearly $60 trillion fiscal hole will be, come January: $184,000.

Oh, and while they were attending the presentation, approximately $85 million was added to the national debt.

Tick tock.

The event, which was hosted by KETC-Channel 9 and the Missouri History Museum as part of the ongoing Community Cinema Series, was followed by a panel of local experts: economist William Emmons of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; Chris Krehmeyer, president of Beyond Housing; Kathy Siddens, community development manager for U.S. Bank; and Temeka Easter of Upromise student loans.

Siddens, for example, described the film as "staggering" and said it illustrated how little Americans understand about the causes and effects of the national debt. She and Easter stressed the need to educate the nation's students about financial literacy.

Krehmeyer said the American public needs to push elected officials for change to ensure a better future for their children and grandchildren.

Channel 9's Jim Kirchherr moderated the discussion, which was peppered with questions about the debt and current economic crisis submitted by an engaged audience of nearly 400 people. Among the more thoughtful questions was one about consumer spending: If we stop buying stuff and start saving money, is that a bad thing for the economy?

"It's happening at the moment. The economy is in a very severe recession right now,'' acknowledged Emmons, citing a dramatic shrinkage in the growth rate, fueled by a decline in consumer spending, home building and borrowing.

On the other hand, such a shift could be a good thing down the road.

"It will rebalance the economy to depend less on consumer spending and home building,'' he said.

Emmons was put on the hot seat, fielding tough questions about Fed policy, including one that was roundly applauded by the audience: How much culpability does the Fed accept for this current economic crisis?

With the caveat that he is not authorized to speak for the Fed, Emmons directed the audience to read well-publicized statements by former Fed chief Alan Greenspan and current chairman Ben Bernanke.

"I think the answer is as President Bush has said about his own legacy, history will tell. And I think the Greenspan legacy is in the process of being evaluated and re-evalutated,'' Emmons said.

In attendance were 99 members of the Greater St. Louis Area Campaign for Liberty Club, a nonpartisan www.meetup.com group started by supporters of former presidential candidate Ron Paul. Afterward, members passed out fliers for an "End the Fed Rally" at noon Saturday at Kiener Plaza.

Member Kelly Owens, 30, of St. Louis said she was disappointed that the documentary didn't delve more into the history of the Federal Reserve Bank.

"It's printing money out of thin air,'' Owens said. "There is no oversight, and it has never been audited.''

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