‘How did we get into this mess?’

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 13, 2013

SALISBURY — Ralph Ketner, who always has had a mind for arithmetic, guided a hometown grocery chain — Food Lion — into national prominence.
So for the life of him, he can’t understand how the federal government — a “company” he and other U.S. taxpayers have invested in for a long, long time — ran up a $17 trillion debt.
“You just wonder what happened,” said Ketner, who at 93 still spends his days crunching numbers. “… I have trouble comprehending $17 trillion. How did we get into this mess?”
Always the straight-shooter, Ketner told the Salisbury Lions Club Wednesday it comes down to failed leadership and a Congress built not of Republicans and Democrats but of politicians.
“They’re not stupid,” added Ketner, chairman emeritus of the Food Lion chain. “They’re greedy, extremely greedy.”
With the country’s debt at $17 trillion, Ketner said, each U.S. citizen owes $54,000. Each state, if you think of them as owing a 1/50th share, owes $340 billion.
For North Carolina, that is 15.6 times its total receipts for one year. Ketner said it would take North Carolina 15.6 years of using its total annual revenues to pay its share of the national debt.
He chuckled and asked rhetorically what could the state or country do to ever address such monstrous numbers. Ketner hinted that’s he’s lucky to be 93, when you consider the burden facing generations of U.S. citizens to come.
Vic Farrah, the Lions Club member who introduced Ketner Wednesday, said the former Food Lion executive has a mind “not satisfied with the way things are.”
To get a grasp of how much $17 trillion is, Ketner said, think of the amount as 17 million multiplied by a million.
That’s 17 and 12 zeroes.
The Lions Club of 40 members alone owes $2.16 million on the national debt, according to Ketner.
The individual debt for citizens has increased by three times since 1994 — from $18,000 a person to $54,000 — and the total national debt in that time has gone from $4.5 trillion to $17 trillion, Ketner said.
“Who did we elect to run this company?” Ketner asked. He said the 435 U.S. representatives and 100 senators could be considered company directors.
But Ketner said those company directors haven’t been answering to their stockholders — U.S. taxpayers. Rather, they answer to lobbyists, and “the day they are elected they start running for re-election,” Ketner complained.
Obamacare — the Affordable Care Act — is one example of the “stupidity of our board of directors,” Ketner said.
Whether or not you are for or against Obamacare, Ketner said, he doubted whether anyone in Congress or the Supreme Court, for that matter, read the whole bill.
Ketner said he was going to study the legislation and learned there were 994 pages.
If he took 20 minutes to read, study and re-read each page, he said, it would take him 331 hours to get through the act. That would translate, he said, to 8.3 weeks at 40 hours a week.
“Do you think President Obama read it?” Ketner asked. “Do you think the Supreme Court read it? Do you think your elected officials read it?
“Obviously, they didn’t, yet it was approved by our board and the Supreme Court. Is it any wonder our country is bankrupt?”
Ketner doesn’t see any relief in sight.
In 2013, the federal budget will run a deficit of $973 billion, meaning the country will spend $1.36 for every $1 taken in.
In five years, it will still be spending $1.16 for every $1 brought in; in 10 years, $1.13.
By 2023, the national debt will be around $22.3 trillion, Ketner said.
His biggest concern:
“There’s no middle class,” Ketner said, “and that’s what’s wrong with America. We have the rich, and we have the poor.”
Ketner didn’t save his tongue-lashing for the federal government only. The greed extends into corporate America, he added.
Ketner said in 1965, chief executive officers of companies made 24 times that of average workers. Today, CEOs are paid 168 times average workers, Ketner said.
The three founders of Food Town, which became Food Lion, never received stock options, Ketner noted.
Ketner founded Food Town in 1957 with his brother Brown Ketner and their friend, Wilson Smith.
The Lions Club announced Wednesday that Ralph Ketner had presented the club with a $5,000 check, which he wanted to be credited toward the Lions’ bell-ringing for the Salvation Army.
Several years ago, the Lions Club made Ketner an honorary member. Ketner said the club means a great deal to him.
His oldest brother, the late Glenn Ketner Sr., had been a member of the Salisbury club for 70-plus years.
Another brother, the late Ray Ketner, was the club’s president in 1934 when Ray was only 21.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.