Columns 2008

It’s not a surplus if you have a debt

When my mom died, my sister, brother and I cleared out some closets in the back of what had been our family grocery store. In one, I found the old ledger book that my father used to keep his finances straight when he ran the store.

Back then the only computer available was in his head. And despite the fact that math has always been a skill glaring in its absence among me and my siblings, the one skill that seems to have survived through multiple generations was the ability to add and subtract in our heads.  Granted, calculators have made that skill somewhat antiquated, but since it’s the only one my family possesses, we stubbornly cling to it.

No one wanted most of the stuff my mom had stored in those closets.  There were things like my nona’s depression era pots and pans that were so thin you felt like you could put your fingers through them, odds and ends of what had once been someone’s good china and the occasional jelly glass.  And then there was dad’s green ledger book with the red leather spine. 

I took it home with me because of the memories it generated every time I looked at it.  My dad would sit in a little room behind the store that we euphemistically called his office and balance his books every week. I’d walk by and see him sitting them, pencil in hand, scanning rows of numbers and putting a final tally at the bottom. All this was done in his head. He rarely had to erase or correct the totals in any way. That was always one of the things that made him awesome in my mind.

One lesson this exercise taught me, without either mom or dad really saying anything, was that a responsible adult took responsibility for his or her finances. You paid your bills, you accounted for your debt, and you did not think you had a surplus if that debt outweighed the money that came in that week. This meant that some weeks there was extra for some frivolous thing like going to a movie or dinner, and some weeks you stayed home and watched Make Room For Daddy while eating pasta e ceci.

So you can understand how confused I am by the math used in both Juneau and Washington.  On a local level, our politicians in Juneau talk about this huge surplus we have because oil prices are so high. Yet in almost the same breath, we hear about the repayment owed to the budgetary reserve, the overwhelming under-funding of the state’s retirement systems and the lack of money to cover multiple infrastructure needs in this state.  And I find myself wondering how anyone thinks we have a surplus.  It’s as though my dad announced one Friday night that we were all going out for a steak and lobster dinner because the store made $50 profit that week while ignoring the fact that we owed $300 to the fresh produce supplier.

It’s the same on the federal level. We are operating in a huge deficit because of a war begun soon after huge tax cuts were initiated by the current administration. Not only haven’t those cuts stimulated the economy as promised, but we seem to be now headed into a recession. So we find ourselves a gabillion dollars in debt, a large chunk of which is owned by China.  Social Security is in a world of hurt and Medicare costs continue to rise.  We have no money to pay those costs. But some politicians still insist that we don’t need to raise taxes.  Instead, they seem to be relying on the Tinkerbell Economic Theorem which states that a little fairy dust will rain down on Washington and turn all their hot air into thousand dollar bills.

It’s too bad my dad wasn’t allowed to run his business the way our government runs the people’s business. My family would have had lots more lobster dinners and lots less Make Room For Daddy. But that’s the price we paid for having parents who felt obligated to pay their debts before thinking of their income as a surplus. They called it being responsible adults.  That’s not a description I attribute to many politicians.

I would love it if we had a budget surplus.  But we don’t. We have programs in serious debt.  We need to start paying those debts.  If my dad were alive, he’d tell you it’s the adult thing to do.