By Nancy Gibbs
April 14, 2016

It is always tempting to cover presidential campaigns as theater or sport, especially in a year when the performances have been so flamboyant. But elections have consequences, and even though candidates’ positions have a way of evolving once they are in office, a campaign is a chance to assign weight to the challenges America faces. In recent issues we’ve done that by exploring the value of free trade and the shifting tension between privacy and security.

For this issue we invited Jim Grant, editor of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer and a wise economic analyst, to explain one of the most seemingly incomprehensible numbers around: the $13.9 trillion in debt the U.S. government is carrying on the national credit card. To help put that amount in perspective, we took the unusual step of customizing our cover for each of our subscribers. (As a result, we’ve printed 2,949,767 different covers–which means that if you are a subscriber, you are holding something of a collector’s item.) As we mark tax day, which this year falls on April 18, it’s appropriate to remember, as Jim points out, that the $42,998.12 share of federal debt for each and every American ultimately represents a form of deferred tax that must one day be paid.

How far off is the reckoning? There was some progress last year when the deficit clocked in at $405 billion, the lowest since 2008. But eight years on from the financial meltdown, the cycle that once provided reassurance–in which the U.S. ran up its debt for wars or crises and then pared it back during boom times–now seems to be broken. With refreshing candor and clarity, Jim lays out the political and policy decisions that brought us to this point and what it would take to chart a path to solvency. “The debt’s nobody’s favorite subject,” Jim says. “It’s like bad news from your mutual fund. You can hardly bear to open the envelope to look at the numbers–but you somehow feel better after you do finally confront them.”

Nancy Gibbs, EDITOR

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This appears in the April 25, 2016 issue of TIME.

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