Governments at all levels are wallowing in debt. They are unable to balance their budgets. Although government debt problems aren’t new, especially at the national level, they have intensified in the past couple of years. Politicians are good at placing the blame for this on the recession or anywhere else they can—anywhere but on themselves.
My parents lived through the great depression as did millions of other people. They learned valuable tools of financial management that helped them survive and finally prosper. These tools, applied by them to family finances, can also be applied to government finances.
Ultimately, however, we the people have to make sure that our elected officials are behaving in a responsible manner. Perhaps we should make and enforce rules for them. I have some suggestions for these rules based on what I learned from my parents and people of their generation.
My parents kept track of every penny and balanced their checkbook. Anybody who runs for public office should be required to balance a checkbook. Don’t laugh. How many government officials do you think can do that? We wouldn’t take a candidate’s word for it, either. We would sit her down and watch her do the math with only a calculator. No lifelines. This isn’t “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” Although there are many office holders who would like to get rich—at our expense.
My parents filled out their own income tax forms. Members of Congress should be required to fill out their own federal income tax returns. Members of the state legislature ditto their state tax returns. This may sound like cruel and unusual punishment, but what do you call the tax code mess that’s been dumped on us? Annually, there are billions of hours of lost productivity because of the gigantic complexities of the tax codes. Less productivity means less wealth creation. Less wealth creation reduces both private and government income. However, I’m softhearted enough to propose that we be kind to our elected officials. We wouldn’t ask politicians to complete the returns without help. They would have access to the hundreds of government-prepared tax publications that explain what to do. Those should answer their questions. Ha. Of course, all returns would be audited.
My parents kept a budget and always saved money, regardless of their income. If they didn’t have the money, they didn’t spend it. Governments should be required to create budgets based on actual income, and to always spend less than said income. This requirement is as slippery as a moss-covered rock under water. Government officials are good at declaring emergencies, using accounting tricks, keeping expenses off the books, keeping multiple sets of books, and using just about any other device you can think of to avoid fiscal responsibility. Someone said we get the kind of government we deserve, so maybe we’re the ultimate problem. If we don’t demand integrity from government officials, we may follow the countless civilizations that came before us and slid from being first-world countries to members of the third world.
The only reason my parents borrowed money was to buy real estate. They purchased a farm in 1950, paid off the loan in 1955, and were debt free the rest of their lives. Governments should be forced to use debt wisely. Government borrowing is usually done through bond issues. Bonds should be sold to pay for investments that will result in improved standard of living and increased wealth. They should come with repayment plans. Much government borrowing, especially at the federal level, is solely to pay off previous loans. Debt creation is justified by playing to our emotions: “It’s for the children.” Meanwhile, we are drowning, and the bill will be presented to our grandchildren. Are they going to be better off having this weight on their shoulders?
My parents always knew what the full cost of something was before they committed to buying it. Governments are forever committing to programs with an open-ended stream of future payments that can’t be determined in advance. What about Social Security? What about Medicare? What about employee pensions? What about the fact that in the future a huge portion of many government budgets will be dedicated to supporting retirees? How will our grandchildren feel about that?
My parents diversified their investments, invested for the long term, invested in things they understood and eventually became rich. How many government-run pension funds have suffered gigantic losses because of unwise investments? Sure, blame it on the economy, but you’ll note that some organizations and individuals lost less than others during the recession. Attempting to generate a higher return because of underfunding can only lead to disaster.
So that’s what my parents did. Governments can learn from our ancestors who lived through the depression. But will they?