Like Uncle Sam – with 8 fewer zeroes

By Brian Russell

Imagine a guy named Sam who earned approximately $23,000 but spent approximately $35,000 in 2012, while already in debt to the tune of over $160,000. And imagine that in 2013, Sam plans to earn a little more, approximately $24,000, but to spend approximately $36,000, taking his total debt well over $170,000. Now, imagine saying to Sam, “Hey, your spending and borrowing aren’t sustainable. Pretty soon, nobody’s going to lend you any more money, at least not at an interest rate that you can possibly afford to pay. In fact, it’s already questionable whether you’ll ever be able to pay off the debt you’ve already accumulated. You need to cut your spending right away.”

Imagine that Sam then says, “I don’t know how I can possibly do that. I’ve gotten accustomed to having all of the things that I’m buying, and I really can’t do without any of them,” to which you reply, “Well, why don’t you trying cutting just $850 out of the $36,000 that you’ve planned to spend in 2013. You’ll still be spending more than you spent in 2012, just not quite as much more, and you’ll be increasing your overall indebtedness by about $11,000 instead of about $12,000. At least it’d be a start.”

Now imagine that Sam says, “I just can’t. I spend a big chunk of what I earn to make interest payments on the debt I already have. I can’t stop making those payments, and I also can’t do without anything that I’m planning to buy this year. I’ve grown accustomed to having all of these things, and they go up in price every year. They’re needs, not wants, and I have to spend the whole $36,000, or else my entire life will fall apart. I’ll be in worse shape if I cut the $850 than if I go ahead and spend it. It really doesn’t make much of a difference whether I end up owing $171,000 or $172,000 at the end of the year. I’ll pay it back eventually. I’ll earn more.”

Imagine yourself then saying, “Look, Sam, you’ve gotta face reality. When you get to the point where nobody will lend you money at affordable interest rates, you’re going to have to quit borrowing ‘cold-turkey.’ There won’t be any time to do it gradually. Right then, you’ll have to start spending only what you earn – less than that actually, because you’ll still have to make payments on your debt – and even if you can earn more somehow, realistically, you’re not going to be able to earn anywhere close to what you’re spending, at least not anytime soon. If you think that cutting $850 now will be too painful, imagine having to cut more than $12,000! Talk about your life falling apart – you might actually become suicidal at that point. You simply can’t continue this lifestyle.”

Now, if you go back through the above story and add eight zeros to each figure, Sam is actually Uncle Sam, i.e. the U.S.A. His annual earnings approximate the federal government’s tax revenues. His slight increase in earnings from 2012 to 2013 approximates the effect of recent income-tax increases. His spending approximates annual federal spending. The difference between his spending and his revenues approximates the federal budget deficit. His total accumulated debt approximates the national debt. And your proposed $850 reduction in his planned 2013 spending approximates “sequestration.” If you’re thinking, “The situation can’t really be that bad!” it’s that bad. In fact, if you take the eight zeros back off and imagine again that this were a regular guy named Sam, he would have had to declare bankruptcy long ago.

The only thing that has allowed Uncle Sam to live an unsustainable lifestyle longer than regular-guy Sam could is Uncle Sam’s ability to print his own money. But even that’s not sustainable in the long run, because each dollar Uncle Sam prints without actually creating any additional value makes every dollar worth less – not worthless, not yet anyway, but worth less. Eventually neither lenders nor sellers of goods and services will want to accept payment in Uncle Sam’s worth-less, if not worthless, dollars, and when that happens, the borrowing ends and life-threateningly painful spending cuts happen immediately.

At that point, forget inconveniences like waiting in line a little longer at an airport or not being able to tour the White House on your spring-break trip to Washington, D.C. (neither of which, by the way, would need to happen as a result of sequestration if it were managed responsibly – yet another reason why it would’ve been nice to have some management experience in the White House). Americans will be forced to live through what the citizens of Greece are living through now, complete with the fear, despair and civil unrest that accompany the abrupt discontinuation of government programs, subsidies and services upon which millions of people have become overly reliant.

Just as for regular-guy Sam, the choice for Uncle Sam, i.e. for “us,” is the choice between elective, predictable, manageable pain now and involuntary, unpredictable, life-threatening trauma later. Will “later” come in your lifetime? Probably, but if not, how much the worse to foist the trauma upon our children, who, as yet, have had no say in choosing our unsustainable national lifestyle? The story of “Unsustainably-Spending Sam” is simple enough that even our children could understand it, so why can’t – or won’t – a majority of us? As with most of our nation’s problems, perhaps it’s because we’ve ceded both our culture and our country to short-term self-gratification seekers, which, too, is unsustainable. The time to take them back – by reasserting personal and national responsibility – is now.

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