Fixing the debt could wreck the economy

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 31, 2011

OXFORD — Here’s the problem with talking about America’s debt in simple terms: It’s naive.

To describe the effects of government spending in detail is impossible, but to compare it to a household — as a lot of members of Congress do — is irresponsible.

If America could “find a cheaper apartment or car” or “not eat out as much” to tighten its belt, that would be fantastic.

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But that’s not how it works.

Federal government spending is so tremendous that it is a key engine in the American economy.

Follow the money.

If a working person downsizes expenses, odds are someone else will take up the slack. Move to a smaller place and someone will rent or buy the larger one. Purchase a less expensive car and someone will buy your trade-in.

But government spending is different.

Government “originates” spending and it filters outward.

You don’t like farm subsidies? Eliminate them. Say you don’t like welfare? Do away with it completely and let people “hitch up their britches.” The total spending in those programs would not come close to balancing the federal government’s outgo with its income, but it’s more important to consider where that money goes. It illustrates why cutting government spending is so problematic.

Government distributions don’t sit in bank accounts. Even public funds stolen by thieves who send bogus bills to Medicaid are put back into circulation. They use it to buy fancy cars, big homes and, if caught, pay lawyers who spend all their enormous fees, too.

Is stealing from the public illegal and immoral? Yes. Good for the economy? Yes to that, too.

And what about “welfare” and other transfer funds that have been the largest income source in Mississippi for decades? These funds are used to purchase nearly half the groceries in Mississippi. Know any supermarkets that could stay in business with half the customers?

Money paid for farm subsidies, defense contracts and in the paychecks of 2.8 million people on federal civilian payrolls also churns through the economy.

To “just stop spending more than you take in” sounds so easy. But the arc of growth — under Democratic and Republican majorities in the House and Senate and regardless of who has been in the White House — has reached the point where it would require an immediate 40 percent reduction.

To order that would absolutely wreck the national and global economy.

Two more points to consider. First is that government income — especially the federal government’s — is not static. Its major sources are employment and profitability. When the economy is ginning, the Treasury’s rake-off soars. With commerce slow and jobs scarce, government revenue is in a pinch. Projections for “out-years” (such as the one on which former President Bill Clinton claimed a surplus) change by billions almost on a daily basis. So while the situation is dire — and will be as long as Congress engages in deficit spending — an economic implosion is not inevitable. If voters keep up the pressure — and it will take decades — actually paying down America’s debt is not an impossible dream.

The second consideration is to be grateful if you are a Mississippian.

For all the tallies in which this state manages to be first among the worst, Mississippi’s debt is well-controlled, for now.

In addition to the $47,000 per capita national debt, the additional debt per Mississippian is a mere $4,400.

Compare that to bonded indebtedness as high as $15,000 per person in Massachusetts and $10,000 per person in California.

Notably, Mississippi has the potential to dig itself into a hole well in excess of the $4 billion the state now owes. There’s no cap on borrowing for capital projects in this state and the Legislature has the legal authority to go nuts, just as Congress has.

But as for ongoing expenses, Mississippi cannot borrow. The people who wrote Mississippi’s constitution in 1890 ordained that the budget must balance every year, so lawmakers here have not been able to be as “progressive” as other states which have created more programs and entitlements and paid for them with borrowed money.

At the national level, Congress, with the blessing of voters, has called the tune. The time appears to have come — at last — to pay the piper. And using a credit card would be ill-advised.

This month, next month and in 2020 and beyond, the greatest hope is that catastrophe can be avoided.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail