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Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

'Just Do It'; Someone Will Pay Later

U.S. leaders once saw the value of prudence.

February 02, 2003|JOHN BALZAR

OK, partisans, let's talk about prudence. Granted, it's an idea not much in fashion anymore. Too many cheery Madison Avenue slogans about "just going for it," I suppose. Too many Hollywood heroes who never pay for the cars they crash in their daredevil escapades.

Which leaves us with too few leaders who see any possible advantage to prudence anymore.

"We will not pass along our problems to other Congresses, to other presidents and other generations...." For a quick second, I thought George W. Bush just might be audacious enough to propose that we live within our means.

Hardly.

In this State of the Union, Bush delivered the now-perfunctory needle to Democrats about restraining their free-spending ways. Then he galloped off on his own spending binge. I thought of Bill Clinton. There was a guy who sought the center by calling himself a Democrat and signing bills like a Republican. Now we have a Republican who talks about throwing money around like a Democrat. Don't these political parties have standards anymore?

I'll admit, I bit on some of Bush's bait. As far as I'm concerned, you cannot devote too much cash for research into alternative fuels. The president's billions to confront AIDS in Africa is a noble use of tax dollars; let's take pride. And who can argue with expanded treatment, $600 million worth, for drug addiction?

No need to pay for these things, though. Charge them to tomorrow. Along with $670 billion in tax cuts, $2,400 per capita over the next decade. Plus more, with expanded tax-free retirement breaks to come. It's our money, the president says, and we deserve it back.

In our narrowly divided nation, a significant number of people think they're paying too much for government. A good many others believe that government is doing too little. Pardon me for being old-fashioned, but is it prudent thinking to say that both are right and must be appeased?

This isn't guns and butter. We haven't seen the bill for the guns yet. On top of everything, there's hundreds of billions Bush wants for Medicare. Last year, it was $171 billion for farm subsidies and billions for homeland security and defense. The year before, he set the tone with a trillion in tax cuts. And let's not forget education, a costly promise that is already coming up short.

You carry this cynical logic of deficits forward and maybe we hope for a state of grace: Government will do everything and cost nothing. Either that, or we'll find ourselves, as I did in Angola a few years back, in a place where dinner and a hotel room cost a half-million in the local currency, and inflation ran at 300%.

The president's brain trusters say we don't need to be alarmed about the sea of red ink that's rising around us. Mitch Daniels, the administration's budget director, called it merely an "accounting balance." Funny, but many of these same people had the backbone to acknowledge otherwise before they moved into the White House and drank the Kool-Aid.

What they're saying is that government-on-credit is OK as long as they are getting the mileage on their MasterCard.

Trouble is, the tab is about to come due for this delusional thinking about the future taking care of us, rather than us having to take care of the future. Private employers planned on good times always getting better. Now the collective pension plans of American business, oops, are underfunded by a record $111 billion. And the federal agency that is supposed to guarantee pensions when private companies go broke announced last week that it slipped billions in the hole. None of this compares with the yawning hole we're going to see in the federal budget when boomers start retiring in five -- that's right, five -- years. Meanwhile, today's deficit grows with every projection. We aren't pretending anymore that it's a short-term crisis phenomenon, as the president said not so long ago. Listen to the sober-sided analysts: overdrafts as far as can be seen.

Even by Arthur Andersen standards, this is not a sound business plan. Borrowing can get you going, but it cannot keep you going -- not when expenses are about to balloon. Contrary to his own lofty words, Bush is deferring everything to the future, except Iraq.

I reread the Federalist Papers not long ago. They're the best guide we have to the philosophy behind our form of governance. I was struck by how often the word "prudence" appeared. The framers understood, as Hamilton said in Federalist No. 31, that the Constitution was a framework that would get us only so far: "Everything beyond this must be left to the prudence and firmness of the people."

It was a more respected word back then, and we've had a good ride thanks to those who took it seriously.

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