Friday, October 8, 2010

Nation Faces Massive Debt ... And There Is No Way Out

When President Barack Obama took office, the national debt was around $10 trillion. The president then had the U.S. Treasury print a trillion dollars in new money to spur economic growth. And then another trillion dollars or so in deficit financing was arranged to pay for Mr. Obama's first budget. Now the federal debt is said to be about $13 trillion. Or is it?

These numbers greatly understate the national debt. Unfunded liabilities in Medicare and Social Security retirement add something like $30 trillion to the debt. A myriad of federal loan guarantees could cost trillions more should the economy continue to stagnate.

And there is more debt on top of that. The collective states, counties and cities are big borrowers and will face some level of default in the future. Public employee benefit funds in nearly all states are woefully underfunded. Tiny West Virginia alone is looking at $13 billion in unfunded post-employment benefits debt.

Consumers are in debt up to their eyeballs -- mortgages, car loans, student loans, credit card debt and home equity (or second mortgage) loans. Millions of Americans are unemployed or won't work and live on the dole. Millions of Americans have spent their meager savings. Millions of Americans are flat broke.

The American people, in debt as they are, see only a magnificent nation. They see beautiful cars traveling on beautiful superhighways. They see beautiful houses with beautiful appliances and flat screen TVs. They see beautiful college campuses and public schools. They see beautiful government buildings. They see beautiful sail boats, cabin cruisers, speed boats and Jet Skis. They see beautiful vacation homes at the sea shore, the ski slopes or anywhere else there is natural beauty.

They see an army, a navy, and an air force second to none in the history of mankind. They see outer space as a parking lot for space stations, GPS and communication satellites.

Ask any American, and he or she will tell you that Americans have built and paid for all of our beautiful notions with our tax money. For some reason, though, they cannot see the mountain of debt that has financed the modern American lifestyle.

As this charade continues to play out, I am reminded of Wimpy, the obese moocher in the Popeye comic strip who was forever saying, "I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."

Tuesday's math lesson: How do we pay back the $13 trillion we currently have borrowed? And then, how do we pay $40 trillion in future obligations? Just how does our nation generate budget surpluses of $1 trillion to $2 trillion per year, each year, for the next 20 years?

One school of thought -- borrow more, spend more -- follows Keynesian economists who believe that the president's stimulus plan didn't go far enough. The opposing view -- cut taxes, cut spending -- is held by the Tea Party.

As for borrowing more, just what is our national credit score?

As for raising taxes, repealing the "Bush tax cuts" will likely ignite a class war.

As for cutting spending, who gives up an entitlement? Do we cut the Social Security retirement benefit? The mortgage interest deduction? The earned income credit? The arts? Defense? National parks?

Remember now, we are asking a government that can't run a piddling passenger train at a profit to solve this multi-trillion-dollar problem.

The election of Barack Obama and his message of "Change" were all about the hubris of the left. The Tea Party revolt is all about the hubris of the right. Neither side will compromise its position on taxes and spending; their hubris prevents it.

The lefties are fed up with Washington. And so are the righties. But to solve the debt crisis, both sides need to admit: "Mea culpa!" After all, partisan politics is what got us here.

In 1975, New York City faced bankruptcy. Then-President Gerald R. Ford told the city that the federal government would not bail it out. The next day, there was a newspaper cartoon that showed a housewife, with her hair in curlers, wearing a housecoat and ironing clothes while her husband, unshaven, sat at the kitchen table in his underwear reading the morning paper. The newspaper headline blared, "FORD TELLS CITY -- DROP DEAD!" Caption: The husband tells his wife, "Well, at least we still have our pride."

We've borrowed so much with so little to show for it that it's almost comical.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Many Find They Have The Luxury To Grumble

Does it seem to you that people complain more and more these days?  Does it also seem that people complain more and more about situations beyond anyone’s control?

I am sure you would answer both questions with a resounding “Yes.”

There are reasons for these phenomena.  And surprisingly, some of this complaining is a good sign because different kinds of complaints mean different things.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow is well-known for his theory on the hierarchy of human needs.  He also wrote an interesting journal containing workplace observations which he published in 1965 as “Eupsychian Management.”  The book has since been re-titled “Maslow on Management.”

Maslow observed that there are three kinds of grumbles.  Low grumbles have to do with the meeting of basic needs such as pay and working conditions.  High grumbles kick in after workers have exceeded their basic needs and receive better pay and less rigorous working conditions.  And then he introduces us to metagrumbles—those grumbles which are more philosophical in nature and may not have anything to do with one’s pay or working conditions.

You won’t find many low grumbles in the modern workplace.  With minimum wage laws, government benefits such as food stamps, OSHA workplace safety requirements and unemployment insurance, even the lowest paid workers are relatively secure compared to fifty years ago.

Americans may think that the lowest-paid workers live at the doorstep of desolate poverty, but thousands of people purposely earn $10,000 to $15,000 per year, max out their government entitlements, and still own their own humble residence.  More people than you would imagine shop for near-new clothes at thrift stores.  More people than you would imagine download discount coupons.  More people than you would imagine live well on the cheap.

High grumbles are a different matter.  If you give an employee an office with one window, he’ll want two.  If his company car is a sedan, he’ll want an SUV.  Give him a black stapler and he’ll want the snazzy red one.

The classic high grumble that I hear most often comes from the professional whose year-end bonus makes up a large portion of his annual pay.  The bonus is almost always less than was expected.  And this grumble comes from people who make a comfortable six figures (eight counting the decimal.)

High grumbles are often related to perks.  After one has bettered his lifestyle beyond basic needs, a portion of that extra income will go toward building status or partaking of leisure activities.  Tell John Doe that he can no longer use company-paid frequent flyer miles for personal or vacation travel, and you will hear a high grumble.

Low grumbles are a product of the authoritarian workplace, a workplace of despair and fear.  Low grumbles, according to Maslow, are a sign that workers are not meeting their basic needs.

High grumbles, on the other hand, can be a positive sign in the workplace.  If interpreted properly, high grumbles point to ways in which to motivate workers.  Yes, the high grumble worker may benefit personally from having his complaint satisfied, but there will almost always be a spillover that benefits the organization.  An office with a second window might actually increase a worker’s sense of worth in the hierarchy and be more effective and less costly than the offer of a pay raise.

Metagrumbles are rhetorical, nebulous thoughts.  The worker wants to see more “honesty,” or more “justice,” in the way the company treats its employees.  These words, of course, never get defined.  Who are the metagrumblers according to Maslow?  “[P]eople who have the luxury of complaining at this level are strictly living a very high-level life.” 

Darryl Hannah was the very model of a modern metagrumbler when she flew cross country to West Virginia and sat on her duff to protest coal mining.  Glenn Beck has become a metagrumbler extraordinaire since he gave up drinking (prior to which he was presumably a low grumbler.) 

A metagrumbler need not be a celebrity, though.  The “high-level life” that Maslow refers to means that most high needs have been satisfied, and the person is free to contemplate such unanswerable questions as “Is global warming caused by man?”

Maslow concludes that it is impossible for people not to complain: “There is no Garden of Eden, there is no paradise…”  But he also advises that grumbles lead to solutions, which in turn lead to the betterment of all mankind.  And he envisions this process of grumbling as being eternal.