Paul Jacob

In a small county in a far corner of this great land of ours, a local politician is doing something not unheard of. He's running as an Independent. In classic American style, he held his required petition convention in the parking lot of a local store on the main highway, and gave away hot dogs and soda pop. He got on the ballot, and is running unopposed.

But why run as an Independent? Why not a Democrat or Republican?

He gets that question a lot. He has a simple answer: "At the county level, what's the difference between a Republican and a Democrat?"

He has a point. He has a point even without that "county level" proviso. But at the local level, he's doubly right. What's the difference? Not much.

Politicians of both parties like to spend. Both like to increase taxes. Both want to "do more things." It's gone out of style to just keep the old services going; the general consensus seems to be: progress. By which they mean: debt.

Yes. Debt. I said it. The four-letter word of politics. And according to a new study by Cato Institute tax scholar Chris Edwards, local government debt has been increasing right along with federal debt. It had been stable in the '90s. It isn't now. Edwards has a nice little graph. I needn't duplicate it, though, because the shape is so familiar: it just slopes upwards and to the right.

The report is short and to the point, worth looking up on the Cato website. Entitled "State and Local Government Debt Is Soaring," it explains — with brevity worth a bravo or two — how and why local debt has increased so much. And Edwards is quite helpful. If you've been wondering what the differences are between the main forms of public bonds, Edwards pithily expounds those for you in just a few paragraphs.

But I bet most of us can guess (without reading any report) some of the whys of local government debt growth.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.