Washington View: Ordering champagne on Titanic

By Don Brunell, Columbian business commentator

Published:

 
photoDon Brunell recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business.

An enterprising Associated Press reporter put the cost of the recent $1.1 trillion federal spending bill in perspective.

At 370,445 words long, it works out to just under $3 million per word — and it funds government operations only through September. Congress begins a debate on increasing the debt ceiling again this month.

The amount of money the federal government spends — some say overspends — is so enormous, so massive that the average person simply cannot relate.

This tax season, H&R Block is airing an ad campaign that puts large amounts of money in perspective. The ad says American taxpayers who don't use a tax preparer miss out on $1 billion dollars in unclaimed refunds.

To illustrate how much $1 billion is, one ad features 36 huge pallets of money stacked on the deck of an aircraft carrier. As the announcer talks about unclaimed refunds, a bulldozer pushes the pallets of money into the sea.

Another version shows a man placing stacks of cash on the seats of a massive football stadium. The announcer explains that $1 billion is enough money to put $500 on every seat of every professional football stadium in the nation.

"This is your money," the ad intones. "Get your billion back, America."

Sadly, that $1 billion is peanuts compared to what our government spends.

The money in this most recent spending bill would pile more than $500,000 in cash on each of those stadium seats. Our $17 trillion national debt would pile $8.55 million in every seat of every football stadium in the nation.

If we started paying off our $17 trillion credit card debt today, peeling off $1 every second, it would take more than half a million years to pay it off. And the debt grows by $2.54 billion each day.

Actually, we're on the hook for more than that. Much more.

The U.S. government has amassed $127.5 trillion in unfunded liabilities -- obligations for Medicare, the Medicare Prescription Drug Program, Social Security, military and civil servant pensions that we haven't budgeted for.

Your individual share? More than $1.1 million.

Despite this, the spending continues unabated. It's as if the revelers on the Titanic knew they were headed for an iceberg, but rather than change course, they just ordered more champagne.

We wouldn't behave that way. Why are we allowing our government to behave that way?

Imagine that your brother-in-law borrowed money from you because he was falling behind on his bills. But rather than pay his bills, he spent even more.

When he comes to you again, you refuse, citing his profligate spending. "But my children will starve," he pleads. "I promise I'll do better." So, you lend him more money to pay off his credit cards. Instead, he gets new credit cards and runs up more bills. When he comes to you again, he warns, "If you don't raise my credit card limit, my children will starve."

That's pretty much how the president and Congress behave these days.

We have a debt ceiling in this country — our national credit card limit, if you will. Each year, we spend more than we take in. In order to continue overspending, we must raise the debt ceiling — raise our credit card limit. Those who suggest that we instead live within our means are shouted down and accused of pushing our nation into default.

So, we borrow more money — and we continue spending more than we take in. It's irresponsible when our brother-in-law does it, and it's irresponsible when the president and Congress do it.

But in the end, because we allow it, it's our fault. And it's our money.