Every day we are bombarded with cutting-edge, Madison-Avenue styled advertising touting the latest ‘must have’ item. Sensory overload drives the message that the x-y-z product is either the cure for all our problems or the answer to all our dreams. New car, new home, new wardrobe, new furnishings – we can’t be caught with ‘last year’s model.’ Our minds go into hyper drive and we soon convince ourselves that something we had no prior knowledge of, has now become a vital part of our existence – a necessity. Sadly however, some of us wait too long before having a moment of clarity and asking that simple question, “Can we afford it?”
The noble desire to offer a better quality of life for all Americans has, unfortunately, pushed us to the brink of disaster. Those who espouse the philosophy that the government is responsible for ensuring all of our needs have caused us to make financial commitments that are threatening our financial future. The debate conducted in the House of Representatives over a budget package for the remainder of the fiscal year contained many eloquent appeals for well-meaning programs all aimed at some segment of our population generally described as deserving, struggling, or otherwise-ignored. With each initiative, the bottom-line continued to swell. Who would rise and ask that dreaded question, “Can we afford it?”
Economists are cautiously optimistic that our unemployment rate, while still unacceptably high, is trending lower. The immense U.S. budget deficit is now considered the single greatest threat facing our economy, with state and local government debt the second-biggest worry. The National Association of Business Economics reports that the 2011 deficit estimate is at $1.4 trillion; up from the November estimate of $1.1 trillion. They also believe that the Federal Reserve’s decision to buy an additional $600 billion in longer-term Treasury securities has diminished the risk of deflation or had no impact on inflation.
What do all of these billions and trillions mean to the average American? Simply stated, we don’t have an income problem, we have a spending problem.
If you’re earning $24,000 a year and spending $37,000 a year, you could find yourself $120,000 in debt in less than a decade. Ignoring the problem will only add hundreds to the debt in accrued interest. How long would you survive if you were borrowing 40 cents of every dollar that you spent?
These are numbers that we can all relate to, but they are significant in that they represent the financial picture our country is facing. The President’s proposed 2012 budget calls for $3.7 trillion in spending, but revenues are only estimated to be $2.4 trillion. That budget also includes $1.9 trillion in tax increases. Our spending has outpaced our revenue for years, and our deficit has increased as a result.
Yet every time an effort is made to rein in spending, taxpayers are faced with a litany of pleas to save this program, spare that program, preserve another program. Passionate arguments espousing the virtues of countless initiatives that benefit any number of people, many described as ‘deserving,’ ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘forgotten.’ What heartless individual could say no?
I’m not talking about the parent who must deny their child’s cries for a new toy or outfit; the teenager who will spend Spring Break at home rather than a tropical beach; the hard-working family man who must content himself with the late model family van rather than that shiny roadster calling his name. This is not a matter of ‘wants’ versus ‘needs.’
Clearly, there are redundancies in services that should be scrutinized. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently issued a 345-page report citing hundreds of duplicate or wasteful programs throughout the federal government. We have 15 agencies responsible for food safety, 17 different programs for disaster preparedness, and 82 programs to monitor teacher quality. That’s just a small portion of the report.
In the same way we would approach such a plan with our household budget, we must examine our federal budget. This effort will not always be pleasant and some changes are going to hurt in the short run. But, I believe that it is time to have the courage of our convictions and accept the responsibility to make the tough decisions.
We have reached a point that our needs must be prioritized. Enhancements to our quality of life have quickly become perceived necessities. We must take a long, hard look at what our priorities are – within the context of our ability to pay for them. Whether its hundreds and thousands or billions and trillions, we must stop spending beyond our means. Ronald Reagan said, “The tax isn’t the tax, spending is the tax.” Amen.
Before taking on any more debt, we must take the time to say, “Sounds good, but can we afford it?”