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The New Economy

Too much US debt? Blame the 'shopping' spree.

Crafting a federal budget is like a teenage shopping spree for boomers, seniors.

By Contributor / February 25, 2011

In this Oct. 23, 2006, file photo, new $20 currency notes are seen at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington. By using deficit spending to finance the budget, taxpayers get the impression that there's no cost to overspending. But the bill will come due.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File

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As an economist who studies federal budget policy, and a mom of four kids, I can't help but compare the way our government taxes and spends with how families earn and spend their own personal incomes.

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In principle, of course, our government policymakers (the president and Congress) should be sitting down at the proverbial kitchen table, balancing a list of spending needs and priorities against anticipated income, and cutting out the purchases that just won't fit – or raising taxes so they will. In practice, though, government spends much the way I do when I take my 14-year-old daughter shopping.

Here's how it works: I follow her into all her favorite stores and patiently serve as human clothes rack. Ultimately, I pay for what she wants, and to her it all seems free. Sometimes, I buy myself a piece of costume jewelry from those otherwise age-inappropriate stores just to make myself feel as if I'm getting something for my efforts and money.

Government spending is very similar, except the generational roles get switched.

The government takes me shopping. My baby boomer cohorts, as well as senior voters, go into the Social Security benefits store, the public health-care store, and the tax-preferences-for-middle-aged-people store. We scoop up armfuls of government-provided goodies.

My daughter – and her entire generation – get dragged along. Occasionally, in those stores, she gets tossed a little trinket, like healthier school lunches or more tax credits for college – things that can be labeled "kid benefits." But she doesn't get to go into the stores she really wants to shop at – like the clean-environment store or the invest-in-better-science-and-math-education store.

And yet at the end of the shopping spree, the federal government hands her the bill.

To our policymakers – and to my generation – this all seems free. We spend as if we have access to an unlimited credit line that never has to be paid back, and we have no incentive to prioritize by weighing costs against benefits.

Eventually, of course, the debt does have to be paid back.

Postponing the payback just shifts more of the burden out to the future – and there's no guarantee that in the future we'll be better able to handle it. In the case of a family, debts can come due during hard economic times when initial hopes of higher income don't materialize. In the case of the federal government, debts are passed on to future generations without making sure they'll have the resources to support those burdens.

Debt is not inherently bad, but unsustainable debt – where debt grows faster than income – will ultimately devour a family's or a nation's economic resources.

If only a better part of our current spending spree were devoted to investments that would pay off for our kids in the long run, we would be much better parents. As it is, our children's incomes aren't likely to be high enough to both pay back those debts and enjoy a standard of living at least as good as ours.

But a lot of us aren't intentionally handing this bad deal to our kids. There's political gridlock in Washington that's blocking common-sense solutions that bipartisan groups have long pointed to.

America can start making better budget choices. We can give up government programs that don't offer much benefit over their costs. We can eliminate poorly designed tax cuts that benefit only a narrow segment of society. We can prioritize our spending, and if there are high priority items that we still can't afford, then we have to be willing to raise the taxes to pay for them – and there is plenty of opportunity to do so in ways that are both economically efficient and fair.

We're not teenagers, anymore. Should America act like one when it comes to controlling her debts?

Diane Lim Rogers is chief economist of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group dedicated to fiscal responsibility. She writes the blog EconomistMom.com.


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