Kicking the can down the road

Published 6:41 am Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I have kicked a can or two down the road, but more often it was a pine cone.

It’s fun to see just how long one can kick the can or stick, pine cone, whatever, and keep it in the road. The game is over when the object goes in the ditch. Sort of like that car that the president talked about last year; that one in the ditch. That may be where we are headed.

This week all of Washington—Democrats, Republicans, tea partiers, pundits and everybody—are talking about our finances. A few phrases come to mind, one of which is in the title to this column. Another one is “whistling past the graveyard.” I also am thinking “all hat and no cattle.” Add your own.

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Both sides of the aisle are pointing fingers and talking big, but neither seems to really want to do anything of substance. That would take courage and a loss of political office might be the result.

The president had to go first, I guess, and he proposed his 2012 budget at the beginning of this week. All I can say is “Amazing!” When I die and someone is figuring out just who might say something over my dead body, let me make a suggestion. Call one of those spin doctors in Washington. They can make a dose of castor oil sound like filet mignon.

Let’s see, now. The president’s budget man hailed the fact that this budget is just the beginning of a process to decrease the national debt by $1.1 trillion over the next 10 years. That sounds great, right? But the devil is in the details.

He might have at least stuttered like the prince in “The King’s Speech” when he talked, but he didn’t. It didn’t seem to bother White House Budget Director Jack Lew one iota to extol the virtue of long term savings on one hand, but on the other say that the savings would not begin immediately. That’s called kicking the can down the road.

Here’s what had me shaking my head about the budget. As I mentioned, the 2012 budget was touted as the beginning of getting our financial house in order, yet, it included a deficit of $1.5 trillion. Let me say that again. Better yet, let me simply quote Mr. Lew.

“This document [the 2012 fiscal budget] is built around the simple idea that we have to live within our means so that we can invest in the future,” the president’s man said. I guess we have two different meanings of living within our means.

Imagine yourself sitting around the kitchen table with all your family with you. You begin to talk with them about how seriously your house has gotten into financial trouble.

“Together, this house earns a fair amount of money,” you begin. “Unfortunately, we are spending a great amount of money. If we continue in this direction for many more years, we will crash as a family. We must begin to live within our means.”

You’ve begun the conversation with a sternness that is almost believable. There is real recognition of the problem.

“For the next five years, we are going on a very difficult crash financial diet. We are going to pay off all of our credit cards, drive our cars until they are paid for, stop eating out so much, and do anything else we can think of to be good stewards of our resources.”

So far, so good. Then you say this, “And to celebrate this decision, tonight we are all going out to eat. You can have anything you want and, before we come home, we’ll go by the mall and get those clothes we are going to need. Then, if the Informational Technology store is open, we’ll get that iPad and new iPhone we have needed. You kids better spend your money tonight because for the next five years, it’s going to be tough around here.”

That’s probably not a perfect analogy, but it’s silly enough to emphasize the foolishness of our country’s budgeting goals.

I’ve mentioned this before, but Washington, no matter the political stripe, simply doesn’t understand what the people are saying. There is a mindset in our nation’s capital that seems to be impenetrable when it comes to talking common sense.

Only in Washington can there be a feeling of success when what is said (“within the next 10 years, we are going to reduce the national debt by $1.1 trillion”) and the actual happening (a year of deficit spending that will add $1.5 trillion to the long term debt).

It might seem that I have picked on the president and his way of thinking today, but, in reality, I can’t say all that much different when thinking of Republicans. Neither is really shooting straight with the American people. Both are nibbling around the edges.

They seem to be playing that old game of chicken. Who’s going to blink first? The president has put forth something but didn’t mention any of the elephants in the room. The Republicans play the same game.

Elephants in the room are impossible to ignore, yet, ignore them they both have. What are the elephants? They’re those entitlements that we have mishandled for decades. They were the source of winning votes; they were the empty promises and the free lunches.

We finally have gotten to the place in our history where the promises are coming due and the free lunches have overwhelmed us. And there are no more winning votes.