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Pay It Forward

John Sansonetti has created a plan he says could get the United States out of debt. And he's ready for Congress to call.


Its full name is this: The S. John Sansonetti Financial Plan for the United States Government to Stimulate the Economy and Help Balance the Budget.

Talk about a prodigious proposal.

But if anyone can take something complex and spell it out for the masses, it's Sansonetti. Like a seasoned professor, he explains things slowly and clearly. Also, he uses props.

Some say his plan is too simple.

Style contacted three local economists — all declined to be named — to ask how conceivable Sansonetti's plan would be. Two referred Style elsewhere. One thought the plan sounded far-fetched and unfounded but didn't want to be critical.

Sansonetti would likely welcome the skepticism and another brain in the game. He's been mulling the plan over in his head and on paper for 20 years.

It works something like this:

Instead of food stamps, people on welfare would be issued ID (citizenship) cards that work like debit cards. They'd each be credited with a $100 voucher from the government which must be spent within 24 hours on goods and services. The recipient of this $100 voucher would then have to spend it within 24 hours. The recipient of this would have to do the same, so on and so forth — like a hundred-dollar hot potato. (The monetary exchanges would be electronic, not physical, thanks to high-tech computers and specialized government software, Sansonetti explains.)

The goal is to move the money rapidly. "If we move this $100 300 times in a year, that's generating $30,000 worth of business," Sansonetti says. Each time the $100 is passed along, the government will bill the spender a service fee of $1. The government will pay back the last person holding the $100 voucher.

Sansonetti figures that, after expenses, the government will get a return of $140 per person annually on the initial $100 extended to "Mr. Poor." This money would then be used to pay off the government's debt — estimated at a little more than $6 trillion.

As simple as it sounds, naturally the plan is a bit more complicated than this.

Sansonetti has composed a book that explicates every detail. He says he has presented the plan to Rep. Thomas Bliley and to a U.S. senator from Wyoming. Neither was interested, Sansonetti says. The reason: the ID card.

Sansonetti says no one wants to tackle the issue of using citizenship cards to monitor things like welfare or travel, though he contends that since Sept. 11, it might be time to reconsider. Still, Sansonetti says that the only identification information on the card would be used "for electronic money, that's all — nothing else."

The bottom line, he says: "You have to be an honest, good American citizen to have one."

Sansonetti doesn't appear phased by the turndowns. Instead, he sits in the elegant, airy living room of his West End home at a card table set out for the interview. From his shirt pocket he pulls his props: a Ukrop's receipt, a prototype for a citizenship card and a crisp Ben Franklin greenback.

He goes over his plan again and again, using the props and passing them this way and that in an imaginary exchange, slapping his hand on the table for punctuation.

"It has tremendous capabilities," Sansonetti says. Who won't go for it? "The underworld, the cheaters," he says. Who else won't want it? "The Enron people because it would trace what they have done," he reasons.

Sansonetti is undeterred by long-term projects. When he retired in 1980, he wrote a book on his family's history. Then he wrote a book on genealogy and research methods. Next he turned to the government to see what its biggest problems were and how he might help. When he realized — back in 1991 — that the government was in debt $4.3 trillion, he says, he had found his cause. "How in the world are we ever going to pay it back?" he wondered.

He decided to find a way. He tapped into investigative methods he used during his career. "Our job in research is to find something new," he says. "One in 10 will be workable."

Now he hopes his plan will take off. "If this starts at the grassroots," he says, perhaps someone will want to discuss and test it. "Let's get this thing exploding and figure out if it'll work," he says. "That's my hope, that it strikes a chord that, my God, here's this new kind of money for the government, it's electronic money and it's only possible because of computers." S

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