"If they can get you asking the wrong question, they don't have to worry about the answer." - Thomas Pynchon, "Gravity's Rainbow"

In the nasty congressional battle now concluding between Leonard Boswell and Jeff Lamberti, and in the horrendous fight for the U.S. presidency that will start in earnest any minute now, everybody has taken and will take the simplistic, emotional way out.

Who hates terrorists the most? Who has the problem of illegal immigration all sorted out? That's what they want you think about.

It's hard to force candidates to talk about more complicated issues - and, yes, it's hard for us voters to focus on them, too. But our leaders need to buckle down and get the nation's finances under control. Soon.

Any enemy of the United States must be delighted to see us digging ourselves into a deep economic pit.

In a recent article for McClatchy Newspapers, reporter Kevin Hall made these points:

1. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has projected that the federal deficit for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 will total around $260 billion, or $58 billion lower than last year's deficit. However, "the deficit is actually about $437 billion, the CBO calculates: the $260 billion official deficit plus the $177 billion borrowed from the [Social Security] trust fund," Hall wrote. The gross federal debt is expected to reach about $8.5 trillion by Jan. 1.

2. "Buried deep in the nation's financial report, issued every December, is an alternative accrual-basis deficit calculation. For the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2005, that deficit totaled $760 billion. It has grown every year of the Bush presidency. It will grow in the 2006 fiscal year too, approaching $800 billion or more."

3. The U.S. comptroller of the currency says the federal government's unfunded liabilities add up to $46 trillion, or about $156,000 per American citizen.

If a candidate wants to cut your taxes, ask how that will affect the debt your children will face. If a candidate wants to raise your taxes, ask if any spending cuts are planned.

Keep asking.