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Archive for Monday, December 15, 2008

Borrowing to pay debt is wrong strategy

December 15, 2008

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Charles Cotesworth Pinckney offered what seemed like a simple austerity measure at the Constitutional Convention of 1787: U.S. senators could serve without pay.

The South Carolinian’s idea was quickly dismissed that summer in Philadelphia by the other delegates — wannabe senators, in some cases.

Perhaps Mark Sanford — South Carolina’s representative to the recent meeting of the National Governors Association with President-elect Barack Obama — will have better luck.

Sanford was in Congress Hall to discuss an economic-stimulus package that could cost $700 billion or more. Many of his fellow governors wanted to green-light a plan they hope would create jobs, rebuild infrastructure, and ease the increasing costs of unemployment benefits and other social services. But Sanford was urging caution.

The governor has no problem with improving infrastructure or helping citizens in tough times. But he does take issue with the government’s spending more than it takes in. And that’s the common element among the bailout proposals: They all would use borrowed money.

“You don’t solve a problem created by too much debt with more debt,” Sanford said in an interview last week.

Sanford’s credentials on the issue are solid. He was among the Republicans who went to Congress in 1994 and helped President Clinton create a surplus. Then-Rep. Sanford did his part by refusing a housing allowance and sleeping in his office.

Since becoming South Carolina’s governor in 2003, Sanford has consistently fought his own party’s bad budgetary habits, going so far as to bring pigs to the state capitol to highlight pork-barrel spending. In response, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature overturned 228 of his 243 budget vetoes last year.

“I never worry about being the lone voice,” he said.

Sanford wasn’t alone in Philadelphia. He and other governors raised several concerns about a bailout: It wouldn’t make enough of a difference; it would reward states’ out-of-control spending habits, stifling needed budget reforms; and it would pay for lawmakers’ Christmas lists instead of the economic assistance Americans really need.

Sanford points to one bailout-package proposal to spend $19 billion on children with disabilities and special needs.

“Is that an important public-policy consideration? Absolutely,” he said. “Will it stimulate the economy? I don’t think so.”

The governor wasn’t there just to say no. He believes the federal government can help states in the downturn. But he cautions against using the New Deal model to run up deficit spending.

“Go back to 1930 or thereabouts, and government spending as a share of gross domestic product was about 4 percent,” he said. “Today, we’re about 21 percent.”

That percentage is expected to increase dramatically as the demands on Social Security and Medicare grow. Also, before FDR, government debt was relatively modest. In a recent piece he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, Sanford noted that the nation’s “unfunded liabilities total $52 trillion — about $450,000 per household.”

Those kinds of numbers limit the government’s options, Sanford said. In fact, he added, those numbers would make it tough for a Third World country to secure a loan from the International Monetary Fund.

If Washington really wants to help, it can ease up on unfunded mandates. For example, Sanford expects that implementing Homeland Security’s “Real ID” program, which imposes security requirements on state driver’s licenses, will cost about $9 million. Overall, such mandates will cost his state about $425 million this year. “That’s a half-billion in stimulus right there,” he said.

And before spending more on low-income housing, Sanford suggests making use of the properties foreclosed on by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

If bailout spending is inevitable, the biggest economic bang will come from giving the bulk of the bucks to working Americans, Sanford said. He cited a proposal by Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, which would use the remaining $350 billion in financial-industry bailout money to cover a two-month moratorium on federal payroll and income taxes.

Let Washington try to provide for every need and ease every pain, and the nation is in trouble, Sanford warned. He quoted from Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”:

“In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all — security, comfort and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.”

As bailout talk continues, expect to hear more from the delegate from South Carolina.

— Kevin Ferris is the assistant editor of the editorial page of the Philadelphia Inquirer. His e-mail address is kf@phillynews.com.

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