So many zeros, so little money

August 14, 2011 

Those who are, like your business columnist, of advanced years may recall that the word “google” existed before it was the name for an Internet search engine.

Google – actually googol – meant a very large number, specifically 1 followed by 100 zeros. That in turn led to the development of the googolplex, informally defined as 1 followed by as many zeros as you could write before your arm got tired.

It appears that, when discussing the size of the public debt, we may soon have need of such terms again outside of the Internet realm.

It’s not just the $14 trillion we, in the form of our federal government, owe to ourselves, the Chinese and whoever else thought our IOUs were a good investment. Nor is it just the uncounted trillions, or googols, we will owe in promises made for Social Security, Medicare and other benefit programs.

Nor is it that, in defiance of the political advice to stop digging when one finds oneself in a hole, we have brought in a fleet of steam shovels to deepen the pit, by accumulating budget deficits.

It is also the uncounted dollars we owe through the debt issued by states, counties, municipalities, government-sponsored entities, special-purpose districts (such as schools and ports) and everyone else with taxing and bond-issuing authority. Just how much?

It’s easy enough to look at an individual company’s balance sheet and income statement to get an idea of how much debt it carries, how successful it’s been at paying what it owes and how much more capacity for borrowing it has.

But when it comes to tallying up the entire sum we the people are on the hook for, and whether we’re capable of paying it off? Good luck trying to find a reliable number.

We can guess it’s a lot and getting worse.

Some public officials have been eyeing the trend with nervousness. Earlier this year, Treasurer Jim McIntire lobbied the Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment dropping the state’s ceiling on debt service as a percentage of general revenue from 9 percent to 7 percent. The Treasurer’s Office reports it’s currently running about 6.1 percent.

That proposal passed the Senate but died in the House. Instead we got a measure calling for – brace yourselves – a commission to study the matter.

The concern is well placed, given the expectation that Washington’s revenue collection estimates are to be cut once more and Washington’s status as a high-debt state (seventh highest for debt per capita and as a percentage of personal income, according to Moody’s).

What’s also worrisome is that state government, while a big piece of Washington’s public-debt scene, is hardly the only piece, as illustrated in the scramble last week to find out just what debt issued by which entities for what projects in Tacoma were included in a downgrade by Standard & Poor’s.

Still more worrisome is that there’s little coordination among the various debt-issuing entities as to how much will be piled on the public.

“Debt capacity is an important yet limited resource,” McIntire wrote in a report to the Legislature. “At a time of unusually significant economic challenges and scarce revenues, policymakers find themselves under great pressure to strike a difficult balance between the large needs for public infrastructure and the risks of overburdening taxpayers or crowding out other governmental services with debt service costs.”

Billions, trillions, googols, googolplexes – they all have an unreal, even humorous, quality to them, with no relation to the sorts of sums we deal with in our daily lives. They will appear all too real, and the joke will be on us, when we’re called upon to start writing checks with more zeros than we can count on them.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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