Thursday, November 29, 2012

Donations for Dummies
    Last Sunday morning, NPR interviewed some poor sap because he donated fifty bucks to help pay off the national debt. His uninformed contribution was part of a puff piece about how the Treasury had received $7.7 million in such gifts so far this year from like-minded lightweights.
    Stories like this keep popping up. I remember an iteration a while back in which the well-meaning widow of a Connecticut university president suggested bake sales to aid in our arrears.
    If we lived in a land with honest media, you would expect them to use such occasions to educate Americans about the debt. The NPR reporter could have begun by explaining that the national debt is not the same as a payday loan. Instead, it's a financial product that’s bought and sold around the clock around the world. Or by noting that some of those who trade the debt ‘own’ their piece of it for the instant it now takes to make or lose money on it.
    Governments have two ways of raising money: by taxes and by borrowing. Taxes are the fairest and most efficient way---if you can get everyone to pay them. Borrowing is basically unfair since it shifts wealth from tax payers to those who lend money to the government.  Those creditors want government to borrow ever more money because that enriches and enlarges the credit markets.  Should the debt be magically paid in full tomorrow morning, those markets would collapse and Wall Street would blow away as if hit by a dozen Hurricane Sandys at once.
    The soaring increase in our national debt parallels the explosion of all sorts of debt. We used to make money by making stuff, now we make it by borrowing,
buying, lending, leasing, selling and swapping a bewildering variety of financial paper, some of which carries the imprint of the U.S. Treasury. This endless production of debt, otherwise known as financial services, has become the biggest of our big businesses.  
    The market in U.S. debt is only one of the countless economic mechanisms designed to make the richest of the rich richer and send the rest of us to gobbing gruel at the poor farm.  This has reached a point where the top one percent have as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. Even Warren Buffett thinks that's suicidal for capitalism. As a result we’re heading, and quickly, in the direction of the feudal banana republics where a few families own everything worth owning in the country.
    So a well-meaning economic simpleton making a donation to lower the national debt is in effect handing a penny to Abdullah, king of the Saudis, or, worse, Donald Trump. That NPR takes debt donors seriously only shows how unserious it is.