"A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money."
Decades ago when Everett Dirksen was a member of the U.S. Senate, federal spending was already out of control. He sarcastically summed up the way money was being appropriated with:
Unfortunately, that is how every branch of government still seems to operate, from federal down through local, even to our school boards. Nobody seems to know when enough is enough when it comes to spending taxpayer money. Few people have a handle on just how enormous government spending has become.
In this connection, let's play a mental game. Suppose you were around to witness the very creation of the universe, which astronomers think took place with the Big Bang. Also suppose you put away a dollar every year since the Big Bang, so that you have stashed away a dollar annually since the very beginning of time. Question: How much money would you have today? How enormous would that pile of cash be?
Well, you would have just enough to match the annual assistance the State of Ohio gives counties, cities, and school boards to pay for welfare, Medicaid, and local schools. The state share doesn't count what the federal government kicks in and what local governments pay for these three expenditures.
Most astronomers place the age of the universe at about 14.5 billion years, and the state government of Ohio assists local communities to the tune of $14 billion annually for primary and secondary education, welfare, and Medicaid. Moreover, the stash of cash you have been saving through eternity covers just 65% of the total annual budget for state government in Ohio.
Of course, I shouldn't be so rough on elected officials. Hardly anyone knows how to handle money these days. Credit-card companies couldn't exist if consumers weren't so irresponsible managing their finances. The credit-card business is lucrative because the average person never even entertains the idea of delayed gratification. They want stuff right now, and to get it, they are willing to pay interest rates that in days gone by only loan sharks charged.
Granted, irresponsible spending is powering our economy, but it also is causing weird economic distortions. At Sears Roebuck, for example, 70% of the firm's income comes from charging people interest on their Sears credit cards. Sears retail stores are now said to be little more than loss leaders for the credit-card operation.
Excluding home mortgages, consumers are in hock to the tune of $1.722 trillion. Revising our mental game a bit, if you had saved $10 per month since the beginning of time, you still wouldn't have enough to pay off our nation's consumer debt.
When it comes to spending like drunken sailors, consumers are being challenged by, of all people, corporate CEOs. They set a record last year by leading companies into bankruptcy to the tune of $368 billion.
Let's look at the track record of one man who has been CEO of his company for a decade. During that time, he let capital spending drain his firm of cash. For the first nine months of last year, his spending exceeded cash flow by $50 million. In just the past two years, his corporate debt grew by $1.24 billion and now totals $6.82 billion.
So what do you do with a guy like this? Well, you make him Secretary of the Treasury. That is what President Bush did with the appointment of John Snow, head of the CSX railroad. He will replace Paul O'Neill, who became unpopular in Washington for speaking bluntly. Among other things, he said that stock traders are people who merely sit in front of flickering green screens and are not the sort you would want to help you think about complex problems.
Mr. Snow will probably be more tactful, and he is said to be a champion of balanced budgets. Some financial people say that makes him a curious choice to support Mr. Bush's proposed tax cuts. But as one reporter observed, in view of his record at CSX, he clearly is a guy who understands deficit spending.