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If you are familiar with the biblical story of Moses leading the people of Israel through the Red Sea (or at least have seen Charlton Heston do it in The Ten Commandments), you know that miraculous event ended with the entire Egyptian army being drowned in the Red Sea.
As I follow the news lately, I am concerned that a similar catastrophe is barreling down the tracks at us, and like the Egyptian army, and more recently the country of Greece, we are in danger of drowning is a sea of red (ink).
Perhaps you saw the recent Congressional Budget Office study that determined that in this fiscal year alone, the U.S. government will run a $1.5 trillion deficit. If you’re like me, when you hear numbers like that, your mind just glazes over.
For those of us living in five-digit territory (that is, with annual family budgets of less than $100,000), it is difficult to even grasp numbers so large.
A trillion is a million million, if that helps. Put another way, this means that the federal government will spend more than $4 billion (that’s billion, with a b) dollars more than it takes in every single day.
As the late Sen. Everett Dirksen famously said, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”
Because of this (and previous years’) overspending, Congress will soon have to take up the matter of raising the “debt ceiling” – the amount of money the country can legally borrow – up from the current $14.29 trillion limit. I’m not sure about yours, but my Visa card cuts me off well short of that.
(A painfully ironic footnote: in March 2006, then-Sen. Obama called the then-current $8.27 trillion debt ceiling under President Bush "a sign of leadership failure.")
According to the Concord Coalition, a fiscal watchdog group, this means that the annual cost just to pay interest on that debt will exceed $1 trillion in 10 years.
You don’t have to be an Ivy League economist to understand that these are not good numbers. In fact, even politicians are acknowledging the unsustainable nature of our current fiscal path. A couple of them even act like they believe it.
Unfortunately, most politicians just give lip service to the idea of fiscal discipline.
For example, after overseeing the biggest run-up of government spending in history over the past two years, in his recent State of the Union address President Obama tipped his hat to spending restraint by promising a temporary freeze of domestic discretionary spending. Out of a $3.7 trillion annual budget, that is like an alcoholic promising not to drink on Wednesday’s from 5:30-5:35 pm, or a womanizing husband promising his angry wife that he will no longer date blonde women named Linda.
Somehow, I don’t think it goes quite far enough.
As another example, in April of 2009, the president pledged to work to cut $100 million of spending out of the federal budget. Again, for those of us mere mortals who shop at Walmart and eat at McDonald’s, that sounds significant. However, when compared the overall debt and deficit numbers, the proposal was nearly meaningless. (To see this illustrated very simply, go to www.wimp.com/budgetcuts).
Some pundit quipped that our government has been “spending like a drunken sailor,” but as Ronald Reagan said, that gives drunken sailors a bad name because at least they spend their own money. Government seems to operate on the premise of the old preacher’s offering plate joke: Reach into your neighbor’s pocket and give like you’ve always wanted to!
Of course, just as the “secret” to any weight-loss plan is simple – diet and exercise, diet and exercise, diet and exercise – the solution to our nation’s debt problem is simple as well: quit spending more than we take in.
This can be accomplished by either spending less, bringing in more (via higher taxes) or some combination of the two.
From my financially conservative position, it’s hard to make the case that the government doesn’t take in enough money; so, the answer must involve spending cuts.
And this is where the rub comes in. As columnist Cal Thomas recently noted, “Each dollar spent by government immediately attracts people and groups who have a vested interest in keeping the money flowing.”
We have become used to the government providing things it can no longer afford (and was never intended) to provide. Most people say they are for smaller government as long as the programs that are cut aren’t ones that they like or from which they benefit.
I’m afraid we may have reached the point that Alexander Fraser Tyler warned about all the way back in 1770 when he wrote: “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits the public treasury…”
That sounds scarily accurate to me.
So a question that arises is this: Is it even possible to restore fiscal sanity and live within our means?
I believe so. Like the humble accountant in the movie Dave, John Stossel recommends several cuts that could balance the budget in a column this week on townhall.com (a Web site I highly recommend).
Sen. Rand Paul recently made a proposal that cuts $500 billion from this year’s budget, and Congressman Paul Ryan has created a “Roadmap for America’s Future,” which is a serious attempt at solving a serious problem.
However, the howls of protest by some that cutting anything will mean starving grandmothers and abandoning children to the streets, the immediate ridicule of Sen. Paul’s plan and the deafening silence about Congressman Ryan’s tell me that we, as a nation, are not ready to discuss the difficult economic decisions that must be made to restore our financial house, much less have the discipline to make them.
If we can’t even agree to defund the National Endowment of the Arts, with its support of obscenely offensive “art,” it’s hard for me to be optimistic about more significant cuts.
Why does it really matter? Why should we even care? Well, for one thing, living beyond our means goes against clear biblical teaching about money management, and doing so doesn’t come without consequences.
Proverbs 22:7 says that “the borrower is slave to the lender,” and I fear we are primed to learn that the hard way.
But don’t take my word for it.
Consider the full quote from Alexander Tyler that I started earlier. “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over lousy fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average of the world’s great civilizations before they decline has been 200 years. These nations have progressed in this sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; from faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to Complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependency; from dependency back again to bondage.”
If you can’t see America somewhere on the back half of that cycle, you’re not paying attention.
Chuck Souder is on staff at Shelby Christian Church. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.