What do older people know that we do not know? Last week, my 89-year-old father was reminiscing about the time he arrived in St. Petersburg in late 1925. He was fresh out of college and landed a job with the old First National Bank.
The bank served as trustee for a number of land developers. The developers hired salesmen who signed up buyers who agreed to pay so much per month. After all the payments were made, the bank would issue a deed for the land.
When a sale was made, the salesman would rush down to the bank with a deposit. The bank would do the paperwork, set up a special escrow account and start collecting monthly payments.
Through the grapevine, Dad heard that sales were humming along pretty well for one developer.
Nearly $5-million in sales one month. Next month, however, sales dropped to $500,000. In the third month, there were no sales. Not one sale!
Several weeks later, Dad asked an elderly bank employee how many land buyers were current on their payments? "Five percent," she said. Right then my father knew St. Petersburg was in big trouble.
At the beginning of 1926, St. Petersburg had seven banks. As the collapse spread, the weaker banks began to falter. The stronger banks tried to bail them out, but eventually all seven local banks failed. The problems in Florida spread elsewhere, leading eventually, of course, to the crash of 1929.
I asked Dad if he was concerned about a crash today. He said no, but he confessed he was alarmed _ nay, frightened _ by our exploding federal deficit. Here is why:
In order to finance our federal deficit, the government must borrow money. It does this by selling Treasury bills, notes and bonds.
If you look in the Wall Street Journal, you'll find a three-column list of Treasury bonds, notes and bills. Guess how many issues are listed? Over 400 and growing!
Then look at the list titled "Government Agency and Similar Issues." This list is six columns long and covers one-quarter of a newspaper page. Obscure agencies like the Federal Land Bank, the Resolution Funding Corp. and Student Loan Marketing (just to name a few), all busily cranking out new debt.
Like Ole Man River, our federal deficit just keeps rolling along. The president and Congress do not dare talk about it much anymore. "Don't bring me no bad news," they seem to say.
The liberals say we have to raise taxes and cut Pentagon spending. The conservatives say we have to lower taxes and cut entitlements. (Ever notice how there are no "real" conservatives left anymore? Or else we certainly would have a balanced budget. The "new" conservatives count differently.)
To keep the game going the Treasury Department must go to market every few weeks and sell a new pile of debt. Each month the debt pile just gets higher and higher. New debt is piled on old debt.
One day you and I will wake up and say, "Why should I buy a bond that pays me only 8 percent interest when I know inflation is going to rob me before I get my money back? I quit."
Bond dealers will be stuck holding stacks of unsold bonds. These dealers will have to cut prices to entice new buyers ("suckers"?). Interest rates will soar.
Suddenly people holding common stock will ask, "Why should I own stock when I can get 10 percent by lending money to my own government?"
Banks will raise lending rates and stop lending to anyone except the most "credit worthy" (those who don't even need loans). Because people will not be able to get loans, they'll stop buying refrigerators, cars and houses. You know the rest.
There is only one way for our government to cover the expanding deficit: Borrow faster and faster. Like a shameless junkie, our government is now hooked. Every few weeks it must have its new fix.
How long can this charade keep up? No one knows. One thing is for sure: At some point, the federal debt will begin to suffocate the economy. Make no mistake: Our national day of reckoning is coming. Most of us alive today will live to see that day.
In the meantime, our government must print more and more money to "paper over" the deficit. That means inflation, friends. So what is wrong with that?
Suppose once a week you went to your neighborhood grocery and bought one loaf of bread. You paid $1 for that loaf, brought it home and stored it safely in your refrigerator. But that night while you were asleep, a thief crept into your home, opened the refrigerator and stole just one slice of your bread. You probably wouldn't even miss it, right?
But what if that same thief came back every week for an entire year and each time stole one slice of your family's bread? And the next year that greedy thief began taking two slices? And in the third year, three slices? What then?
After a few years, you would have only a quarter of a loaf to feed your family each week. Either you would have to eat less or you would have to begin buying two loaves. That would cost you $2.
Do you know the name of that sneaky thief? Our federal government! That's right, by adopting policies that guarantee inflation, our government is really stealing from every American citizen.
Why don't our elected leaders do anything about it? A few thoughtful leaders are privately worried, but most lack the courage to act. Many members of Congress have become the equivalent of local bag boys bringing home "goodies" to the home district. (Remember the attempt to reduce a few unneeded military bases like MacDill?)
So I am afraid it is now up to us, folks. We are the only ones left. Only ordinary people like you and I can save our nation from the debacle that is surely coming.
Somehow we must climb up on our rooftops and scream: "Yo, Mr. President and Congress! Listen up! Stop spending more than you take in! In the name of the people of the United States, put America's house in order or be gone!"
Oh well, enough of this gloomy stuff. Rather than get serious, let's just sit back and whistle a happy tune. So here's a cheerful ditty my father once wrote. Maybe we can get George Bush, Bill Young, Connie Mack, Bob Graham and every other member of Congress to sing along. It goes like this:
By working less, for more and more,
The price of goods will soar and soar,
And dollars, without pride or shame,
Will lose their worth, but not their name.
If fewer hours and bigger pay
Is the magic road to a perfect day,
Let's all stop work, and print more money,
So all can live on milk and honey.
Dad will be 90 on Aug. 27. Don't you wish we had a few 90 year olds in Washington?
Thomas Churchill Dunn is a St. Petersburg lawyer.