Do you want to succeed or do you want to fail?
In the Army, we often thought of things in “simple” terms like this. Success. Failure. Go. No-go. If you got where you were going and everyone lived, it was a success. If not… well, you can imagine.
So when I think about the current debate on raising the debt ceiling, I hearken back to my simple thinking. Do I want to succeed? Or do I want to fail? I want to succeed, so the simple answer is to raise the debt ceiling. I ask you to indulge me for an anecdote while I explain the not so simple reason why.
As a young man, a teenager in fact, I lived debt free with the exception of a house I had purchased. I lived in this house with my girlfriend, my cat, and my newborn child. At first things seemed idyllic enough, but life began to throw curveballs at me. The first curveball was a pick up truck hitting my sweet ’92 Dodge Daytona ES (w/ the V6) head on. This car was in cherry condition. I had paid $4000 cash for it when it had only 70,000 miles on it, and it was a rare find. So rare that I couldn’t find a similar one for less than $7000 after that pick up truck destroyed it.
So here I am with a mortgage, a cat, and a baby, but no car. I had $4000 that the other driver’s insurance company had given me for the damage, but finding a good car on short notice was proving difficult. I still had a job to go to and a child to transport. (the cat could fend for himself) And in case you were wondering, I did have a second vehicle, a minivan, but it was so unreliable that I think I only ever drove it 600 miles.
After a week of public transportation and begging friends for rides, I finally made my first deal with the economic devil. I financed a used car. Now I expect some of you will read this and think, “Four thousand dollars…. He couldn’t find a used car for $4000? I bet I could. This author is an idiot.” And if you think this, you are completely forgiven, as we all think we can spend someone else’s money better than they can from time to time. But as it is, I have an “at least” rule. I need to feel confident that at least one of my vehicles is reliable. So I put myself in debt to secure transportation for my child and a dependable means to work.
Now that at least one of my vehicles was safe, clean, and reliable, I felt confident about carrying on with my daily duties. But as luck would have it, life hurled yet another curveball at me. Within less than a year, my child’s mother and I split up… And subsequently, I began to pay child support.
I now had a mortgage, a car payment, a cat, and child support to pay. Not to mention visiting my child required extra expenses, as I had to provide all of the transportation. My once sustainable way of living had become compromised, and I now had to decide how to make ends meet. This is where comparisons to raising our raising our Nation’s debt ceiling come in.
The split up with my child’s mother was sudden and had immediate effects on how solvent my finances were. I soon learned that “my baby mama left me” did not mean very much to a mortgage company. I also learned that it gained you no sympathy from the electric company, the gas company, the water company, or the grocery store either.
I tried to live off of only the cash I made, but within three months, I started to fall behind on my bills. The first bill I let go was my car insurance. I quickly learned however, that if you let your auto insurance lapse, it costs a fortune to reinstate it. And once it was reinstated, they raised my monthly premium on top of that. So then I fell behind on electricity. They shut that off, and now my furnace wouldn’t kick on. Also it was dark, and I had no hot water. (that got shut off too by the way, the water, that is)
I still didn’t believe in credit cards, so I got a payday loan. That was actually how I got my car insurance reinstated. But after getting my utilities and auto insurance in order, paying off that loan led me to being late on my mortgage…. Did you know that the mortgage company is rather insistent that you are “current” on your loan? Let me explain… If you miss January’s payment, yet make every other payment for the next 30 years, the mortgage company will still ding you for being late. They want you to catch that payment up, and they want you to do it fast. My advice to you: Your house payment is not something you want to fall behind on.
Did I mention it took less than 90 days for this whole merry-go-round of misfortune to manifest? (say that one out loud) It took me a long time to become financially solvent again, but I did. And this is how I did it:
-I got credit cards. Now I could afford to buy food and gas and pay it back in small chunks. (in case it’s not obvious, that’s NOT sustainable)
-I cut every thing out of my life that I could not live without. (entertainment, mostly… C.D.’s, cable television, fast food)
-I went through a series of extra jobs.
-I rented out my house and moved into a rather scary one in the ghetto.
-And I got a room mate.
Eventually, after two years, my life began to feel normal again. My bills were paid on time, and I had money in the bank. I could start to “do things” again. And I no longer needed the credit cards “to live off of”. That two years had a profound impact on who I am today, and it’s been my goal to never repeat them.
Now I’m not going to stand here and tell you that I could not have played my cards any differently. I’m not going to say I couldn’t have made it without going into so much debt. But I am going to tell you this: When you have obligations to meet and you’re under a deadline, then decisions start being made for you. You can refuse to borrow money, but your lights can also be shut off.
Do you want to succeed? Or do you want to fail?
The United States has obligations. Some of them are necessary and obvious. And some of them are a result of poor choices. (much like my story) But they are obligations none the less. Like it or not, it costs money to be the greatest nation on the earth. Refusing to acquire more debt is not going to make the problem go away.
If we want to be fiscally solvent and avoid the pain (and embarrassment) of having to “reinstate our car insurance”, we should do the following:
-Raise the debt ceiling. Blocking a vote to raise it is symbolic at best. It’s not really a viable option.
-Finish our wars. I’m not in favor of simply pulling out, but as Larry the Cable Guy says, we need to “git ‘er done”. No country has EVER remained fiscally solvent while waging war indefinitely.
-Raise the age for retirement. (Social Security) And we need to set it to raise within the next five years… Not the next 40.
-Increase revenue. Isn’t Media Matters exempt from taxes…? (I’m joking… sort of) While a blanket raising of taxes is not advisable, there are certainly areas where revenue can be raised. Fees are not out of the question.
-Investigate HOW we went from $9 Trillion of debt to $14 Trillion in less than five years. And then make necessary adjustments from there.
-Do not promise NEW entitlements to the public. We can’t even afford the ones we currently have.
-And finally, we need to look for ways to cut waste. I put this last, because while it’s both necessary and important, it’s not the end-all/be-all.
I am not an advocate of living outside my/our/your means. As I mentioned before, my early adulthood is not something I would like to repeat. But I have learned the painful lesson of letting dogma influence my decisions. There are times that resisting pragmatism will lead you to failure.
And that’s the question you should ask yourself constantly (throughout your entire life). Do you want to succeed? Or do you want to fail?
Ignoring our obligations is not going to make them go away. In fact, it’s a sure way to fail. We may not want to borrow money to pay for them, but they need to be paid for.
Success in this case is being financially solvent, and I want us to succeed. If we play our cards right, this can be the last time that we raise the debt ceiling for the next 20 years. It’s as simple as reducing our future obligations while meeting our current ones.
What about you? Do you want to succeed? Or do you want to fail? Let me know how you feel in the comments below.