- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
Republican convention organizers may not have been able to accomplish much business on Monday, but they did make one dramatic statement: activating two prominently displayed clocks that will measure the national debt and how much that debt has accumulated during the four-day event. The clocks, party chairman Reince Priebus explained, will draw attention to the "unprecedented fiscal recklessness of the Obama administration."
The original National Debt Clock, which real estate developer Seymour Durst installed in Manhattan in 1989 to highlight the $2.7 trillion national debt that had piled up under Ronald Reagan, has spawned numerous imitations, including a makeshift clock the Romney campaign constructed last year out of green styrofoam, two flat-screen televisions, and two computers. (The National Debt Clock itself has grown more complex over time; whereas Durst used to collect federal data, calculate the debt level himself, and send the figure to the board by modem, the clock now relies on a computer algorithm that needs to be "trued up" with official statistics once a week.)
The United States, it turns out, isn’t the only country to engage in these brooding public displays of indebtedness. In Britain, for instance, the TaxPayers’ Alliance trotted out a truck-mounted UK Debt Clock at a rally in London last year to support public-spending cuts. The DebtBombshell website, set up by a "single concerned citizen of no political affiliation," displays the United Kingdom’s mounting debt atop a frightening black bomb, partially cloaked in the British flag. In Germany, the taxpayer watchdog group Bund der Steuerzähler strategically installed a whirring debt clock near government buildings in Berlin (there’s also an app for that).
The Taiwanese Ministry of Finance, meanwhile, unveiled a National Debt Clock in 2010 to deter wasteful government spending and followed up this year with a Local Government Debt Clock. While the opposition Democratic Progressive Party initially derided the idea, arguing that the clock underestimated the national debt, it has since pointed to the tally as evidence of the country’s deteriorating finances. The Swedish National Debt Office has a similar debt counter on its website.
But the mother of all debt meters is the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Debt Clock, which was released in 2009, with a color-coded map to visualize the rising tide of global public debt. Fittingly, the United States — the country that introduced the national debt clock to the world — appears in dark red.