The late U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen was of an era of quotable politicians. It was Dirksen who famously said, “A billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”
He also said, “We are becoming so accustomed to millions and billions of dollars that thousands has almost passed from the dictionary.”
Well Senator, don’t roll over in your grave but we have now multiplied the words in your quote by factors ranging from a million to a billion.
In less than a year, we have become numb to the sound and meaning of a billion dollars. Today, it’s not a headline if it’s not some multiple of a trillion dollars.
This cannot go on.
One of the lasting effects of this deep and painful recession is that average Americans are in the process of cleaning up their personal balance sheets. Restaurants and stores are hurting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is ten percent unemployment. But another reason is that many consumers have stopped funding today’s purchases with tomorrow’s money. We’re laying off the credit cards.
And while it is inevitable that employment will eventually rebound, I think it is less likely that debt-driven spending will rebound to pre-recession levels. In households all across America, working men and women have come to the conclusion that buying today and paying tomorrow at ruinous rates of interest is not the path to financial security.
I think that if this recession has done nothing else, it has woken Americans up to the fact that we as a nation have been carrying too much personal debt. I think individual Americans, making individual decisions based on individual self-interest, are in the process of rectifying that condition as we speak.
In other words, Americans are doing the right thing. As they almost always do.
Which begs the question, why isn’t the Congress?
Here is a sobering fact. In the current budget year, the United States government will spend just a bit more than $32,000 for each one of us. But the government will only take in $16,000 for each of us. The difference will be made up with borrowing.
So while you and I pay down debt, the political class continues to pile debt on.
Borrowing money to buy a house is one thing. But borrowing money to pay the electric bill is something else entirely. The family that’s doing that is in serious trouble. If you can’t meet your daily living expenses without resorting to borrowed money, you’re on borrowed time.
How that’s not the case for our country has yet to be explained to me. Eventually, if the Treasury continues to issue debt in order to pay the bills, there will come a cruel reckoning.
And please don’t conclude that I’m bashing Obama and the Democrats, reckless as they are. Spending the earnings of future generations in order to gain political advantage in the here and now is the second oldest profession and bears a startling resemblance to the first.
And it has to stop.
But it won’t stop if we, the people who vote these clowns into office, don’t make it stop. Just as we can no longer keep adding to the balance on the MasterCard, we can no longer demand that politicians keep paying for our votes with benefits and entitlements that our children and their children and their children’s children will have to pay for.
At one time or another, almost every one of us has suffered the embarrassment of having a credit card declined at a restaurant or a store. It’s humiliating and it’s almost always a sign that our personal spending has gotten out of control.
Imagine such embarrassment writ large when the Treasury goes one day to sell the notes necessary to finance the U.S. government and there are no takers. That will be a bad day.
Which means that while you personally are paying down debt or postponing purchases so as to avoid debt, get over the idea that the government can provide health care or jobless benefits or money to buy a house or to fund your daughter’s college education or to build a community center or provide a boat launch at your favorite lake or pay the salary of the concert master of the symphony orchestra.
It can’t. And we need to stop asking.
Uncle Sam’s VISA card is maxed out.