The aim of not going broke

The new year has barely begun, and already a lot of people are back on their heels -- on the defensive. Almost everybody's 1981 resolutions seem obsessed, in one way or another, with the decidely negative question: How can I keep from going broke?

We have become a nation of bookkeepers -- gloomy bookkeepers.

As their first act the bookkeepers of the new administration threatened to declare the whole country an economic disaster. There were objections -- not because the description was untrue but because to say so would make matters worse.

One dreads that some bookkeeper with an inky sense of humor will revive the awful old slogan: "Better red than dead." Meanwhile, the prevailing motto is: Cut back! These pinched and squeezing words are heard everywhere, from government offices to business board rooms to the kitchen tables around which American families discuss what they laughingly call their budgets.

The metaphor of the tightened belt is slowly fraying itself into shreds in our national dialogue.

If things keep up -- or rather, down -- this way, the preeminent seat of bureaucratic power in the '80s may be, not the State Department, not the Pentagon, but the General Accounting office. Our new villain is the spendthrift. Ah, the folklore of waste, the tall tales of extravagance! GAO reports promise to become the horror classics of our time -- like the story of the 28 golf carts purchased for $109,025 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

We have terrible nightmares about the money that gets away. For instance, the bets handled by bookies represent an estimated $3.5 billion in lost taxes --

On the other hand, we have beautiful dreams about what may be called no-ouch revenue. Congressman Barry Goldwater Jr. of California has suggested selling advertising space on postage stamps as a means of generating federal income. The idea is said to have occured to him while he was taking a shower, and cynics have sneered, "Back to the old wet drawing board." But a letter writer to the Sacramento Bee, Paul McCormick, picked up the notion and literally expanded upon it.

Why only the tiny signboard of postage stamps? Mr. McCormick asked. The "most extensively flat surface" in the United States is our federal highways system. Couldn't the government sell space on that? And how about those massive white walls that house our bureaucrats? -- murals just waiting for profitable messages to fill them.

On the whole, we prefer Mr. McCormick's little satire to, say, another round of GAO stories about the $715,000 spend on color TV sets, swimming pool supplies , and air conditioners to batten up our defenses at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines -- and use up an appropriation before the fiscal quarter expired.

We are as penny-pinching as the next man, as our friends and relatives keep telling us. But we don't believe in the ouchless tax any more than we believe in the ouchless cutback.

Still, let's assume Proposition 13 works. Let's assume everything works -- ouchlessly. What will we do after we've balanced our books? Not going broke is simply not enough of a goal to fill the heart. What will our Proposition 14 be? Do we just live it up happily ever after? -- a nation of swinging bookkeepers.

People keep telling us: Later. Not now. We'll know where to row as soon as we bail out the boat.

We say: A sense of destination is what inspires the bailing.

We say: If the time for good resolutions isn't now , when will it be?

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