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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Pulling the Plug on Debt Clock




NEW YORK -- Time has run out for the National Debt Clock.


For more than a decade, the stark green sign has chronicled the second-to-second growth in the U.S. debt from its perch atop a building near Manhattan's Times Square.


Often the debt was rising so fast the last several numbers were blurred, reminding passers-by of a serious economic problem usually expounded upon by pundits.


These days, the sign is hardly the clarion call it used to be.


Its numbers barely budge, and the national debt has actually decreased overall since the beginning of the year, what with these strange phenomena of budget surpluses and the first buybacks of government debt in 70 years.


So, the owners of the sign are pulling the plug.


Barring an unexpected reversal in Washington's newfound sense of fiscal responsibility, the National Debt Clock will go dark on Sept. 7, the birthday of the man who invented it, the late Manhattan developer Seymour Durst.


"It was put up to focus attention on the increasing national debt, and it's served its purpose," says Seymour's son, Douglas Durst, who now runs the family real estate business.


"We're obviously pleased that it was partially because of the sign that attention was focused on the debt and efforts were made to bring it under control," Durst said. "We think he'd be real happy with the fact that the deficit has been eliminated."


The sign was just one facet of the elder Durst's campaign to raise public awareness of the spiraling budget deficits of the 1980s and 1990s. He also bought tiny ads at the bottom of the front page of The New York Times with dire warnings such as "Beware the Four-Letter Word - Debt" and "Borrow, Borrow; Enjoy Tomorrow Today. Tomorrow will be Terrible."


Durst's efforts can be traced back at least to 1980, when he sent New Year's cards to businessmen and politicians warning that the national debt had reached $914 billion. As of the end of business last Friday, that figure was $5.6 trillion, or $5,640,080,609,534.56, to be exact.


Durst had long talked about the idea of a debt clock, and eventually put up the sign in 1989. It's run by a computer that takes the exact figure of the national debt at the same time every week and then calculates the rate of change. The sign has run with only intermittent interruptions since then, though it once had to be turned off for a few months in the mid-90s when the debt was increasing so fast it crashed the computer.


How times have changed. Blessed with budget surpluses, the government announced in January that it planned to buy back up to $30 billion of publicly held debt this year.


Careful observers of the clock will notice that the figures have actually been fluctuating both up and down over the past few months, but that's because of increases in debt held by government accounts such as the Social Security trust fund.


The symbolism of the moment is strong for many who have kept close watch on the national debt over the years. David Jones, chief economist for bond dealer Aubrey G. Lanston and Co., says the dimming of the debt clock was not something he expected to see in his lifetime.


"That thing has been running forever," said Jones, who is based in New York. "It became an institution and people began to believe there was no end in sight and no hope for reducing the deficit, but the situation has been completely turned around."


This being New York, however, everyone is entitled to an opinion. Former Mayor Ed Koch, not known for being bashful on matters affecting the city, said he thought it was an "error" to stop the clock.


"I think they should redraw the clock to show the paydown of the debt," Koch said. "Everyone's promising to reduce the debt, and I want to see if they keep their promises."


Not to worry, Durst says the clock will merely be covered with a cloth for the time being. It may be removed - but not destroyed - if the site is developed into an office building, as the company hopes.


"We're not taking it away - anything can happen," says Durst. "We'd have to store it someplace, and that's as good a place as any. It's not exactly the kind of thing you can keep in a closet."