Americans seem indifferent to the level of personal debt and obsessed with public debt. My mother had an aphorism: “You had your fun, now you have to pay for it.”
Debt, according to this view, is incurred for a lack of patience, a preference for current gratification over future comfort and security. (Health and other emergencies aside.)
As consumers, we put those concert tickets and those clothes on the credit card, which we do not pay off promptly. But in the public sector, we don’t want to build our streets and roads or operate our schools to a higher standard because we don’t want to pay higher taxes or user fees over time.
In our homes we say, “It’s our money we can do with as we please.” About government we say, “It’s the politicians’ and bureaucrats’ fault; they waste so much of our money on needless projects.” Neither statement holds up under examination.
It might be your money, but how you spend it does matter. How you please yourself in the moment may deny you things of higher value, if you bothered to think.
Think about Halloween. American consumers spent an estimated $9.1 billion for costumes, candy, and the other “necessities” of the event. That’s enough to pay more than four months of interest on their auto loans.
We are quick to complain about health-care expenses, including the cost of insurance. Yet, consumer expenditures for entertainment and cell phones equal 65 percent of what we spend on health care.
How we spend our money teaches our children how money should be spent. Lavishing gifts on children for holidays and personal events teaches them the resources of the family are meant for transitory pleasures. We say children only think in terms of the present, but who taught them that by repeated excess?
Raised in this manner, it is no wonder that as adults we see homes and businesses in our communities in a state of decay. Some say it’s a lack of income, which has some validity, but in most cases it is a simple matter of neglect.
So, too, does the public sector suffer the infection of neglect. If we do not take care of what we own separately, is it any wonder we neglect the jails, schools and fire and police departments we own collectively? No surprise, then, we have pock-marked streets. Also, it is no surprise to have polluted air and waterways, which are owned by us all and by no one in particular.
Unfortunately, many will go out in May for the bizarre Hoosier sight of talented drivers risking their lives as they speed for 500 miles around an oval. In late, June many will buy fireworks for the “fun” of it, to entertain the little ones.
Once again, banality will triumph over reasonable and responsible behavior.
Morton Marcus is an economist. You can contact him at [email protected]. You also can follow his and those of John Guy on “Who Gets What?” wherever podcasts are available. Send comments to [email protected] reporter.com.