A surrogate is someone who does something for some else. Citizens and taxpayers have become very comfortable with having government surrogates spend their money. Unlike the surrogate mother who bears the pain of childbirth for the other mother, the surrogate government spender can transfer the pain of overspending back to the taxpayer. And taxpayers are beginning to feel the pain.
According to one dictionary, a surrogate is a deputy or substitute. In short, a surrogate is a person appointed to act for another. These days, the term is most often applied to surrogate mothers, meaning a mother who carries a baby to term and then relinquishes it to someone else. Enter the term “surrogate” in an Internet search engine, and dozens of sponsored ads in the sidebar related to surrogate mothering will appear. Mothers are not the only surrogates.
Our government system in this country has been devised so our elected officials are our surrogates when it comes to spending our money. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Each of us cannot personally review and approve every dollar appropriated at the federal, state and local level. On the other hand, we do run the risk of giving up some things when we appoint surrogates. We give up personal contact and interest in matters that we should be more involved with. It is easier for citizens to demand services from the government if they do not feel that personal connection. Government subsidies, for example, have become a way of life at just about every level. The poor get subsidies; the rich get subsidies.
Most economic and political experts agree that the current economic crisis began with an overextension of credit. Now we hear the phrase “spend our way out of a recession” quite a bit. A person’s belief on whether we can or not do this depends on one’s viewpoint. Time will tell. The country seems to have become numb to the amount of spending that is going on and proposed. Does anyone really have a feel of how it is to spend a trillion dollars? CNN recently aired a piece on this subject after United State Senator Mitch McConnell said that if $1 million per day was spent since Jesus Christ was born up to today, it would not equal $1 trillion. CNN checked with Temple University math professor and author John Allen Paulos, who not only confirmed that fact, but pointed out that in that scenario only about three-fourths of a trillion dollars would have been spent.
When it comes to government spending and subsidies, this writer often harkens back to a day in 1929 when Hugh White, then mayor of Columbia, called for a two-hour holiday for the community to discuss an economic development project. The meeting was held at the theater. Columbia was down on its luck. The timber industry had played out and unemployment was high. White had gone to Chicago and met with a company that told him it would put a manufacturing plant in Columbia if certain incentives were available. White told the crowd that it would take $85,000 for the construction of a building to house the plant. In return, company promised to employ 300 workers (increasing to 700 workers) and to pump $1 million in wages into the local economy over 10 years. To get the funding, White said that he could borrow the money from a bank in New Orleans, but that he must have personal — yes, personal — pledges to guarantee to loan. He then asked individual citizens to sign promissory notes in whatever amount they could afford. The necessary amount was pledged, and White got the loan. The rest, as they say, is history. Reliance Manufacturing Company opened the plant in 1932 and within the first four years met the workforce promises it had made earlier. The company provided hundreds of jobs for the community for many years thereafter.
Now hears the question: Do you think that personally signing those pledges, instead of having elected officials borrow the money through issuance of bonds, had an influence on whether the citizens of Columbia had an interest in the success of that company? Do you think they watched to make certain that their investments were being handled properly?
Nowadays, citizens do not personally sign pledges or promissory notes when their government borrows money in their names. They use surrogates. This practice can result in citizens thinking that they are not personally responsible for paying back the money that has been borrowed. It all seems too big for the average person to understand. After all, who can understand repayment of a $1-trillion loan? Because of the housing market’s influence on the current economic situation, perhaps it would be better to put it in terms of a 30-year mortgage. At no interest, a $1-trillion mortgage would require a level monthly payment of over $2.77 billion per month.
The surrogates of tomorrow’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are borrowing a lot of money in their place.
Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Phil Hardwick at firstname.lastname@example.org .