Money, money, money, money, money, money, can you use any dollars today?
Money, money, money, money, money, money, we’ve so much that it gets in our way.
In our Treasury there’s a mighty sum, millions we’ve subtracted from
The envelopes that hold our take-home pay. Can you use any money today?
Irving Berlin, lyrics from his 1953 musical “Call Me Madam”
Some of us who remember hearing and seeing the inestimable Ethel Merman belt out Irving Berlin’s great songs on Broadway may well have forgotten the little spoof he wrote about Perle Mesta, a wealthy Washington socialite who was the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg from 1949 to 1953. In the musical, Merman plays Ambassador “Sally Adams” who is posted to a small, fictional European country called “Lichtenburg” that is “too small to be a country, too big to be a town.”
The musical was set, contemporaneously, in the early ’50s. Television was in its infancy. Twitter had not even been dreamed of. (What a blessing it would be if that were still so.) A general named Eisenhower was being pushed by Republicans to run for president (“They Like Ike”). He was said to be “good on a mike.” He really wasn’t. But he made the “boring 1950s” a lot better than what would come after.
Harry S. Truman was president, and the country was at war in Korea, a war fought with the same objective as the war in Vietnam would be a decade later — to make the world “safe for democracy.”
The “money, money” lyric in “Call Me Madam” was pointed at U.S. foreign aid, contentious then as it is today. The Marshall Plan had disbursed $13 billion (in today’s dollars $110 billion) between 1948 and 1952 to help rebuild the war-shattered countries of Western Europe. Many Americans supported it then, and it was indeed a noble endeavor. Today, in terms of economic output, the European Union is perhaps a bit larger than the United States itself. Maybe, just maybe, President Trump is on to something when he insists that NATO countries pay more for their own defense. They committed to spend 2 percent of their Gross Domestic Product each year. Few have. The U.S. spends a little less than 4 percent.
As the years slipped by, and with recipient governments whose interests have not always aligned with those of the United States, support for foreign aid has become more difficult to justify, particularly given our $20 trillion public debt. The ’50s now seem so far away. A million dollars was a lot of money then. Now we talk in terms of billions and even trillions of dollars. A trillion or so is what we’ve spent in the 17 years we’ve been engaged in fighting and “nation building” in Afghanistan. (And how’s that working out?)
A million dollars is still a lot of money for many of us, but in the ’50s a million easily could have bought a South of Broad mansion in Charleston. Now, you’ll have to look far and wide to buy anything on the lower peninsula for a million. We talk a lot about the need for affordable housing in Charleston and elsewhere, but we never quite get around to asking the $64 question: Affordable for whom? Few of the people who work in Charleston can afford to live here, and most of us agree that is something that has to change if we are to escape the curse of becoming another Disneyland — a real life one.
Whatever is being suggested will cost a lot. Who is going to pay for it? The city? The state? The federal government? South Carolina is already one of the highest, if not the highest taxed state in the Southeast. Are we shooting to become the next bankrupt New Jersey, Illinois or Connecticut?
One of the problems when dealing with a fiat (paper) monetary system such as ours, is that we so often confuse earnings in terms of paper money, rather than real income in goods and services. It’s the flip side of inflation. Government can and often does increase the supply of paper money to almost any amount it chooses, theoretically up to the cost of the paper it’s printed on. Real income, either earned individually or collectively at the national level, can be increased only by saving more, investing more, producing more, or borrowing more.
Guess what Washington, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, has consistently chosen to do.
R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.