Acton Commentary

The Fiscal Responsibility of Mall Rats and Bureaucrats


The holiday season’s retail buying has left many Americans with empty bank accounts and hefty credit card bills. As we begin a new year many of us will be making resolutions to rein in our spending and stick to a more frugal and fiscally responsible budget. As it happens, that’s a resolution even more fitting for lawmakers in Washington.

The picture we get from news reports and pundits about the state of the American economy is one in which consumers are essentially irresponsible and materialistic, eager to simply live in the moment. We buy today and let tomorrow’s debts worry about themselves.

This narrative of our economic life is in fact a fundamental piece of the government’s case for managing our finances for us. We simply can’t be trusted to save or spend responsibly, and so we need the legislators and bureaucrats in Washington to take care of us through social spending and entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Now, lawmakers are getting ready to add new layers of regulation to the home mortgage industry to protect us from “predatory” lenders.

But what if the federal government is actually less financially responsible than the American public? Could it be that the average mall rat, with all of his or her excessive spending and credit card debt, is actually a better steward of resources than the Washington bureaucrat?

The numbers make a clear case for an affirmative answer. For instance, total consumer spending for the 2006 calendar year was just over $5.7 trillion. The total consumer debt newly acquired over this same period was $103 billion. This means that in 2006, about two percent of all consumer spending was incurred as consumer debt.

By contrast the federal government’s income for 2006 was roughly $2.3 trillion. But the government spent around $2.7 trillion, $423 billion more than its income. Total spending was an outstanding 16 percent higher than total revenue.

When it comes to managing spending, the federal government is doing a poorer job compared to the average American consumer. Both common citizens and federal politicians are spending vast sums of money. But as bad as the mortgage loan crisis promises to get this year, everyday people are less prone to finance their spending with debt—and are thus, better stewards of their own resources.

On top of all this, the government is promising a whopping $45 trillion more that it can deliver on Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs. This number is the expected revenue shortfall from entitlements over the next 75 years. The official Social Security statement itself says, “In 2017 we will begin paying more in benefits than we collect in taxes. Without changes, by 2041 the Social Security Trust Fund will be exhausted.”

This is a rather optimistic estimate, which nevertheless reveals that government’s fiscal responsibility leaves much to be desired. Young workers increasingly look at their Social Security statements with cynicism, and the federal government’s unfulfilled pledges promise to be a dominating issue with the power to shape the next generation of political debate.

Responsible stewardship of one’s material resources is a consistent and recurring biblical theme. At the conclusion of a parable on stewardship, Jesus said, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10 NIV). We shouldn’t be duped into granting the use of greater and greater portions of our paychecks to a federal government that has been unfaithful with what it has already claimed.

Jordan J. Ballor and Ray Nothstine are associate editors at the Acton Institute (www.acton.org) in Grand Rapids, Mich.