September 7th 2000 - The plug was pulled on the National Debt Clock, which has kept track of the federal government's red ink since the electronic billboard near Times Square was erected in 1989.
In its final moments Thursday, the sign read: "Our national debt: $5,676,989,904,887. Your family share: $73,733."
New York real estate developer Seymour Durst invented and bankrolled the clock to call attention to the then sky-rocketing national debt. He died in 1995.
"My father's purpose in putting it up was to show the increase in the debt and to get people aware of the size of the debt and how it was growing," said his son Douglas Durst. "And the clock certainly was helpful in accomplishing that."
The 11-by-26-foot clock was covered with a red, white and blue curtain after it quit ticking. The younger Durst was skeptical the clock would remain covered for long.
"We'll have it ready in case things start turning around --which I'm sure they will," Durst said. "The politicians will do what they have always done and start spending more than we can afford."
Debt rose $13,000 per second
When it first was plugged in, the odometer-style clock whirred furiously as the national debt rose by $13,000 a second. Often the last few digits increased so fast they were just a blur. And at one point in the mid-1990s, the debt was rising so fast the clock's computer crashed.
But the clock, which calculated the second-by-second increase in the debt based on data from the U.S. Treasury, began doing a strange thing this year.
Rather than cranking higher, it started ticking in the opposite direction, shaving off roughly $30 a second at last count, with a newly frugal Washington to thank.
Much to the bewilderment of passers-by, the clock began ticking down shortly after the government -- flush with surplus funds from America's decade-long economic boom -- announced in August 1999 it would start paying off its debts.
The government has paid off roughly $100 billion of the national debt so far this year.
Ticking down sending wrong message
"I was waiting for a friend, and that was the first thing I was going to ask him -- why is the clock going down?," said Glen Allen, who often spends his lunch hour near the corner of 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue at the entrance to Bryant Park.
"It's great that it's going down, but what does it really mean? I don't know. If it turns in the opposite direction, I would have no way of knowing what caused it," Allen said.
Durst said that kind of confusion was far from his father's wish to inform the public on the ballooning debt.
"I think it's sending the wrong message at this point," he said.
Some prominent Wall Streeters agreed.
"When the public debt was rising at the rate it was a decade ago, it was a great idea. But now it just becomes a basis for complacency," said Lou Crandall, who follows Treasury financing at the Wall Street research firm Wrightson & Associates.
Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore has outlined a plan that he says would eliminate the debt by 2012.
Senior economic advisers to Texas Governor and Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush agree with the principle of paying down the debt but have not committed to a specific date for eliminating it.