Talk about an unsound investment.

In 2004, the owners of the national debt clock in Times Square tore down the original version -- erected in 1989 -- and upgraded to a 13-digit model that was capable of running backwards. Instead, with the country taking on more and more debt, the family that owns the digital clock is already talking about a plan to buy a little more time, losing the sign's dollar sign in exchange for a 14th numeral.

If the clock does run out of space, which at the current rate could happen in the next two years, at the very least it'll again serve its purpose as a tangible example of the cost of the escalating national debt.

The Government Accountability Office, which often seems to be viewed by presidential administrations and Congress as the Agency That Cried Wolf, said in December that the government's budget deficit for the 2005 fiscal year was lower than that of 2004 -- but still very high, particularly given the impending retirement of the "baby boom" generation and rising health care costs. The basic costs to operate the government increased to $760 billion in fiscal year 2005 from $616 billion in fiscal year 2004 -- a 23-percent rise. As of September end, the federal government's gross debt was about $8 trillion.

GAO Comptroller General David Walker has said that worse, the federal government isn't even properly accounting for its spending, meaning that the $8 trillion estimate is probably looking on the bright side. Walker has said that a trio of worrisome deficits -- the federal budget deficit, the balance-of-payments deficit and personal savings deficits -- all continue to grow, converging to someday threaten the country's economic livelihood.

The GAO is a nonpartisan agency, and the Dursts, who own the debt clock, say they are a nonpartisan family. The original clock began running in 1989, when the national debt stood at 2.7 trillion. In the late 1990s, annual budget surpluses caused the clock to slow down and eventually run into the happy problem of being unable to run backwards. The clock was eventually stopped in 2000, and a curtain covered up a debt total reading around $5.7 trillion, which the individual "family share" below the total standing at nearly $74,000.

Just two years later, the Dursts decided to turn the clock back on, recognizing a new phase in governmental spending. The total began running again, starting at $6.1 trillion. The debt is now above $8.3 trillion, which the "family share" standing at close to $90,000.

It does make an impact, watching those seeming random digits all spelled out, seeming ticking up so fast that the numbers seem to move at random.

Real estate developer Douglas Durst, whose father Seymour came up with the original idea for the clock, said he's already considering putting plans in motion to upgrade the clock again, adding on digits and making the numbers themselves physically larger. Right now, it sounds like a pretty safe investment.

"We're a family business," Durst told the Associated Foreign Press recently. "We think generationally, and we don't want to see the next generation crippled by this burden."

The Durst's problem and point is an easy to grasp story that doesn't get lost in the details of just how the national debt got to the point that it spans 13 places and seemingly exists outside reality. Here's hoping Walker has better luck getting future politicians to truly understand what $8 trillion truly adds up to for the country's future.

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