I am not a professor of economics. In fact, I spent my grad school time in three different subjects, history, journalism, and education (which many argue should not even be a grad school subject) and only obtained a master's in education. This was my ticket into a career in the public schools and, later, criminal corrections at the county level, which means a jail.
In fact, I am writing this column on America's economic situation only because yesterday Rush Limbaugh had a cold. The guest host filling in for him was Walter Williams, a retired professor of economics and author of many books, from what money is and does to growing up in the ghetto, where one sees in a very practical sense what money is and does.
At any rate, I love old Dr. Williams and he did a great job, but he misses one critical, crucial, vitally important point. At only one other point in American history was our ratio of National Debt to Gross Domestic Product as high as it is today--during the deadly serious conflict fought by the greatest generation--World War Two.
As Walter explained, the US Treasury Dept. had to finance a whole lot of debt from 1941 to 1945, but here is what he (and many other economists) miss about this debt binge--the bonds to finance the debt were overwhelmingly sold to American citizens and frequently were in small amounts, such as the $25 war bond. As late as 1965 when I graduated high school the savings bond (which was purchased at the Post Office) was a very popular gift item for graduates. I received three of them. I would really like to be able to get the interest rate they paid today.
Sometime during our national journey since 1965 the Treasury stopped selling savings bonds, claiming it was more efficient to sell bonds in huge quantities of at least $10,000 or more. The most popular gift for the person whom you don't know what they want became the gift certificate at a store. This represents the paradigm shift of our times--from savings bonds to a consumption enabler. Don't save it, spend it!
More importantly than all that, those huge denomination treasury notes I mentioned tended to be bought by the very wealthy or by banks, particularly of late, Chinese banks. Now here we really get to the rub--when the old, small denomination savings bonds and the war bonds were gradually paid off, the money went to American citizens, who held that debt. Today the interest on our national debt and payments on the principal mostly gets shipped to China or other foreign interests. The stimulus effect to the American economy of the payback will be vastly reduced. During the 1950's and 1960's as those small bonds got cashed in, people bought American stuff with the money. Since I had scholarships, I cashed in my three bonds and purchased a Gibson acoustic guitar for $75, which I dearly wish I still owned.
Not only did I later end up spending the bulk of my working career at a county jail (we corrections folks were actually represented by the SEIU for a time and I myself was an SEIU shop steward!) but I had grown up in a small prison town in which employment at the prison was the main industry. This is significant because not only do we have the federal government spending and taxing at record levels today in 2011, we have state and local governments doing so as well. How would ordinary citizens be even able to afford the small denomination savings bonds when their total tax rate has soared to over 15% for nearly everybody and up to 50% for the wealthy?
My history with jails and prisons also provides insights into where government spending goes today. Our small state prison was not budget funded until 1936. It had been entirely self-funded (indeed, the towering medieval castle-like structures were entirely built by the inmates themselves) and in the summer the prison sat nearly empty as prison work crews (not in chains) were out on work projects all over the state, mainly digging wells by hand, building roads and bridges, and running a major brick works. You must remember that in those days if someone was a hard core physical threat to society they had probably been hanged within six months of sentencing.
The widespread prison industry was all organized by the old paternalistic warden system. Always accused of being graft ridden it in fact was highly efficient. The main reason that it shut down was that during the Great Depression labor unions became very jealous of prisoners getting all the best state jobs. The legislature put a stop to prisoners doing real work while incarcerated and the discontent and very expensive to maintain leisure inmate was born. From that point on the prisons would not only have to be funded by state taxpayers, they would quickly swell to be one of the major items in the budget.
Working later in the jail, I could easily discern why incarceration became so wildly expensive. Back in the 1920's even jails were nearly self-sustaining. Ours had an inmate dairy, livestock farm, vegetable and potato fields, a bakery, and even an inmate butcher shop where trustees wielded long sharp knives and meat cleavers. Every day those held behind bars enjoyed the freshest bread, milk, butter and eggs and a full choice of all the meat dishes for most meals, as the jail also raised chickens and turkeys. The main thing that did this in was that the county jail farmland was too close to the city and as it became more valuable it was all sold off. Today the jail menus costs less than 80 cents per meal and was designed by health nut dieticians, which means eating has become a real form of punishment.
While in the jail I became aware of the absolutely stunning cost of providing health services to inmates. Because of a series of very stupid decisions by federal judges the jail gradually became the world center of defensive medical practice. Nearly all inmate complaints or symptoms were only processed by the nurses, P.A.'s, and doctors on the jail staff. Any real treatments always necessitated the inmate patient being transported under armed escort to a local hospital. This was even for a few stitches resulting from the frequent fights among bored leisure inmates. The jail doctor was not allowed to do stitches! I used to sit with my prisoners in hospital examination rooms just trying to calculate what the visit was going to cost, in toto, for the tests being ordered and the security cost because my presence was not exactly cheap either, especially when the O/T meter activated (as it nearly always did. Defensive medicine takes time.)
Back in my hometown my high school girl friend's father was the prison doctor. He mainly dispensed medicines. He had trained his trustees to do stitches and set small bones so that he wouldn't have to get up in the middle of the night and drive across town. This wasn't a big deal, because both of his medical trustees had been combat medics in both W.W. II and Korea and both were highly competent first care trauma providers and good at diagnosing internal complaints. In those days anybody in our little town diagnosed with cancer who could afford it took the train back to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Inmates were just given pain pills, kind of a preview of Obamacare.
The most amazing expenditure of money I witnessed at the jail was the full-time methadone nurse coming around. Each dose of methadone for certified heroin addicts in jails costs the taxpayer over $400 when you calculate the total cost of the daily dose as delivered. A comparable dose of heroin on the street costs $40, the going price for decades now. What could illustrate better how much more efficient private enterprise is at delivering anything?
I could have done the same dreary analysis with the public school system where I taught nearly every grade K-12 and was a school counselor and principal for one year. The public schools have over time been saddled with rigid structural, legal, and social engineering mandates which compel them to do nearly everything in wildly expensive, wildly ineffective ways. Such as hiring full-time assistants for mainstreamed problem children, mainly to take the first sneak punch from the student and then wrestle them to the ground in a gentle way until the tantrum subsides.
Back in my old hometown school system (where I was amazed while doing my own student teaching at how much the school administration staff had grown even as the pupil population shrank from our baby-boom highs) out of 103 kids that graduated after journeying together from Kindergarten through high school we lost only one girl as a drop out. We had less than 1 % drop out rate in our old fashioned school system that according to today's professional educator handbook did everything wrong! And, oh yes, we could read and write and almost all of us stagger into retirement now having worked nearly every year of our lives, even at jobs that were beneath us.
To our generation, nothing was beneath us. There was only a wide open sky above us. Sorry, today's generation. There are obstacles to you fixing the ruinously over-expensive public education system and the over-expensive criminal justice system that you probably can not overcome without a total in-the-streets revolution. That is precisely why when you look upwards all you will see are clouds dark way beyond ominous and way beyond terrifying as you glimpse the lightning flashes amid coal darkness.