By Matthew Goldstein

For months now we’ve been hearing a lot about the $14 trillion in debt owed by the U.S. government. But there’s been far too little talk about the almost equally high debt tab owed by U.S. consumers.

The Federal Reserve recently reported that total outstanding debt owed by U.S. consumers was $11.4 trillion, down from its third-quarter 2008 peak of $12.5 trillion. At that pace, it could take years for U.S. consumers to delever, or in plain English–reduce the debts they owe on their homes, credit cards, autos and student loans. But when it comes to the staggering sum of consumer debt in this country, it’s pretty clear that time is not on our side.

In fact, the longer it takes for consumers to pay-down their debts, it simply means demand for homes, autos and other big ticket goods will remain lax. And that means the unemployment rate won’t get much lower than its current 9 percent rate anytime soon. In fact, with all the signs pointing to a double-dip recession, unemployment could very well inch higher in the next few months.

In our Special Report, “A “great haircut” to kick-start growth, we take a look at one radical measure for speeding-up the process of consumer deleveraging, which involves some sharing of losses by banks, bond investors and borrowers. Jennifer Ablan and myself found a growing number of economists, analysts and even some institutional investors who are craving for a creative solution to the consumer debt woes plaguing the U.S. economy.

Our story doesn’t discuss the mechanics for instituting a great haircut to jump start the economy. The specifics of just how to spread the losses around is a subject for a later day and is something that can be dealt with at the negotiating table. But hopefully our story, which you can read here, will get the discussion rolling.