UNDERSTANDING PUBLIC, PRIVATE DEBT

Much is being said about the levels of public and private debt. Some of the talk is in technical language - such as, in hock up to our eyeballs - but the underlying concern seeps through.

And it is hard to minimize the bills we have accumulated, beginning with the biggest collection of them, the federal debt.The president's recent budget estimates that federal debt held by the public will rise from more than $1.9 trillion this fiscal year to $2.0 trillion and some change in fiscal 1988.

How much change will depend on whether we can limit the new debt on arrival in that budget to the $107.8 billion deficit it projects in order to meet the terms of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction act. If you are inclined to bet that we will, make sure you get some points.

One of the difficulties always cited in discussions of the federal debt is the problem of grasping the notion of a trillion.

Billions are easy to understand, thanks to astronomer Carl Sagan's televised seminars on the universe, but the idea of a trillion remains elusive.

This might help: If you were to begin with President Reagan's recent statement that the federal budget deficit is outrageous and add up all prior statements by public officials or private citizens decrying that deficit or the federal debt, you would have to go back at least two or three years before you had a trillion of them. And just think of all the Congressional Records you would have to plow through.

Many of those previous warnings were couched very homely terms - to the effect that the federal government has to learn to live within its means the way the average U.S. family does.

I've tried to live within my means and it can be difficult, given the non- stop efforts of others to lure me down the plastic primrose path.

The most notable of those efforts was a department store's unilateral conclusion that I had sent six dresses to Monrovia, Liberia, and that our charge account with the store should reflect that.

It took only a few months of phone calls and letters to explain to several layers of the store's hierarchy that I had not sent the dresses to Monrovia, largely because I knew no one there.

What may have clinched the argument was my announcement that I would pay off the small other charges on the account, coupled with the suggestion that the department store should hold its breath while waiting for payment from me for the dresses.

But while you and I have kept our credit skirts relatively clean, there are other, less prudent folks out there. And they had piled up roughly $740 billion in consumer credit outstanding by last November, about $80 billion more than a year earlier.

If that suggests that at least some consumer families may not be a model of fiscal deportment, the growing media menace called shopping by television may make them less so.

If you are among the millions already on a cable system offering one the television shopping clubs, you are already familiar with them. If you are not so wired, consider yourself fortunate.

They offer all-day, every-day pitches, primarily for non-essential products, generally at significantly discounted prices. You can phone in, credit card at the ready, join the club and purchase the product, but only if you call within the few minutes it is on display.

If you don't mind being hurried to meet such an artificial deadline, you may get to chat on the air with one of the so-nice sales people and be awarded a horn toot in recognition of your shopping sagacity.

If that seems a bald outline of the proceedings, the fact is there isn't much more to them. We are talking about an ultimate television achievement: all commercials, no program.

But we are also talking about something that works. The pioneer clubs seem to be doing well and the nation's bigger retailing companies are getting into the act or thinking of doing so.

The Justice Department's controversial new proposal to remove the AT&T divestiture decree's restrictions on the seven regional telephone companies could produce additional ways to make shopping, on credit, easier.

The other fiscal model often recommended to the federal government is business. The hitch is that corporate credit market debt, for non-financial institutions, was last reported at $1.6 trillion. Total corporate liabilities were $2.3 trillion.

Those figures, along with the roughly $2.5 trillion in mortgage debt shared by corporations and individuals, suggest that that there may be no good models, that we're all in this credit muddle together.

The problem is that it's getting deeper.

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