Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Politicians arguing over pennies on the debt dollar

The more time I spend agonizing over my own budget, and my own debt, the more I get irritated with governments' handling of public money.

We are hearing a lot about government spending in recent weeks and we will hear a lot more about it now through the end of next year's presidential election. Sadly, what we are hearing is a lot of slogan-like sound bites, but little of substance. The two major parties are doing a lot of finger pointing and arguing over tiny chunks of the budget that won't do a damn thing to get the federal government any closer to merely spending the money the government takes in each year.

All the chatter about whether or not to fund OPB, Planned Parenthood, the Obama healthcare plan, farm subsidies, or whether to raise taxes on the rich or corporate taxes amount to spit in the ocean. Billions here or there won't fix the massive problem. The deal the parties made to cut $38 billion to avoid a government shutdown is 1/35th of the deficit the feds have already overdrawn the bank account this year. There is a $1.35 trillion deficit so far this budget year.

Millions and billions are hard enough for most of us to fathom, but a trillion-plus for just this year's deficit and a $14 trillion total deficit? That's $14,000,000,000,000. That's way too many digits. So let's look at it another way.

Let's say you earn $21,820 this year. However, you spent $35,825 for the year. So you put some of that on a credit card. So you added $13,504 to your debt this year. That would be a little scary, since the debt you incurred was more than half your income. So, soon, you will have to either get a huge raise, or seriously cut your lifestyle to deal with this year's credit card bill. But the really scary part is, the total credit card bill is already $143,125. Do you know anyone that makes $22,000 a year with a $143,000 credit card limit? So, if you spent all your earnings on your credit card bill, it would take you 6 and a half years of earnings to pay that off, not counting interest. And there is always interest. And, of course you still have to eat and pay the bills somehow.

Using that ratio, the deal to cut the budget that Congress reached early this month to avoid a government shut down would cut spending by $380 for the year out of our $38,000-plus spending.

The only way to get a raise would be to raise taxes. And of course those big meanies in corporate America should be the ones to pay, right? I see lots of people sharing stories on Facebook and other sites about how little corporations pay in income taxes (and they all seem to ignore all the other taxes corporations pay). So let's just make the Exxons and GEs of the world pay higher income taxes.

Well, according to, where I'm drawing all these budget numbers from, puts total corporate assets at $13 trillion. The current debt is $14 trillion. So even if the federal government liquidated everything corporations owned, it wouldn't pay off the existing debt, and of course there would be no corporations left to pay any taxes next year.

The total value of all goods and services produced in the country would be barely enough to pay existing debt. The current debt is 97.5 percent of the total Gross Domestic Product. There is no amount of tax on corporations or the rich that can cut the debt without some dramatic cuts in spending too.

As those of us working to get ourselves out of debt have learned, the first step is to quit digging a deeper hole. I realize that the government is going to need to raise taxes to get out of this hole. But even that won't stop the bleeding. Massive spending cuts will have to happen too. And we will have to do major surgery on some sacred cows to get it done, namely social security, Medicare and defense, not to mention a lot of other welfare-type programs.

I don't relish the thought of people who have suffered  having to suffer more, but I also realize that we all have to take more personal responsibility for ourselves and our own families financially. Everyone will need to pitch in on this deal.

It's time to get radical. Raise the retirement age immediately. Freeze or reduce social security benefits going out each much. Freeze or reduce Medicare and Medicaid benefits. Raise the retirement age for government workers (at all levels of government). End fixed pension benefit levels for government workers (at all levels of government). Reduce government payrolls at all levels of government and since taxpayers are fully funding public employees pensions, then government workers can help bolster social security and Medicare even though they, theoretically, won't ever tab into it. If it's a societal benefit, everyone, Congress included, should pay into it. Put an end to never-ending unemployment benefits. Reduce food stamp spending and other government assistance. Reduce/eliminate tax credits, tax deductions and subsidies for all manner of social engineering projects that benefit the poor and the wealthy, individuals and companies.

Oh, and there is speculation that Obama will raise and spend $1 billion or more for his re-election campaign next year. State, and even some local races, raise and spend millions. How about we tax political campaigns too. That's something Democrats and Republicans would both have to pay and its funds that would come, in large part, from wealthy individual and corporate donors. And maybe if the tax rate was high enough there would actually be some incentive to keep campaign budgets from getting ridiculously out of control. Maybe we can get some of these aspiring candidates used to frugal financial management before they get into office.

If we do some of these radical things, to cut spending and increase government revenue, then, maybe we can start getting the governments' spending more in line with what it brings in. At the state and local level, we can't continue to give government employees raises, cost of living increases and step increases and guaranteeing benefits they will receive regardless of whether the pension funds or state revenues can afford it.

We should also decline an increase in the debt limit, the limit on the federal credit card. But we won't.

We may want to help everyone, but we can't. We, at the very least have to help everyone we are helping  less. We all need to get our own financial houses in order, pay our own bills and expect our governments to do the same.

If nothing else, at least when you hear the ongoing political rhetoric about tax increases or budget cuts at the federal level, I hope you realize that if the amounts discussed don't top a trillion dollars, the windbags spouting off are only talking about a small fraction of the problem. If they aren't talking about at least hundreds of billions, then they are talking about pennies on the dollar of our current debt. This is not about paying for Big Bird vs. tax breaks for the rich. It's far more complex and far more serious than all that. And it will cost us all far more than we care to admit.


Gene said...

"I realize that the government is going to need to raise taxes to get out of this whole. We, at the very least have to help everyone we are helping less."

This is the nub of your argument, and it makes sense. (I wonder, though, if "whole" is a typo.)

So far I haven't heard of anyone asking the over 55 cohort to make a sacrifice. As children of the WWII "greatest generation," we should be asked; doubtless we will respond in the affirmative.

The G-man said...

Thanks, Gene. Yes, that was a typo, so I fixed it in the text. And you add an important point. Thanks for that too.

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