Econ 101: All dancers must pay the fiddler

Here is an Economics 101 lesson: If you’re hungry and you have $10 in your pocket, you should eat at Taco Bell, not the Olive Garden.

If you have $50 in your pocket, you can eat at the Olive Garden, but not Stanley and Seafort’s.

The problem is, we Americans have developed an appetite for prime rib and red wine (Stanley’s) and refuse to go back down to the burrito and Diet Coke when times are tight. All the better if we just ate at home, but we don’t. The average American spends more on eating out than on health care.

I confess that I am at least as guilty as the average American. I too often want what is out of my price range. I’ve bought into the culture of entitlement.

My husband and I have been in a belt-tightening mode of spending for the past year, carefully weighing each expenditure. For some reason it’s easier for him. Since I stay home with the kids, I’m the one that is constantly reaching for the checkbook for school events, entertainment, tuition for music lessons, birthday party gifts, Girl Scout uniform stuff — not to mention the co-pays for dentist appointments and prescriptions. Don’t get me started on all the “home parties” that we women get invited to for cookware, jewelry, candles, cosmetics and all those holiday “must haves.” The spending menu is endless. Our appetites will stay stoked indefinitely if we don’t impose some restraint on ourselves. Aye, there’s the rub.

When I was a young professional, before I was married, my dad gave me some sage financial advice: He who dances must pay the fiddler. It appears that we have come to meet our fiddler as a nation and as a state.

No American under age 50 (that would include me) has experienced a tough economy. Welcome to the law of averages. It’s our turn. The mess on Wall Street is a big picture version of what we’re seeing in our own state. For all the complicated intricacies of high finance, the collapse of our financial markets can be traced to traders and investors spending money they didn’t have and giving money to people who were in no position to borrow. This can, in part, be traced to the Alan Greenspan years of cheap money and easy loans. Instead of the 2,000-square-foot house, we sought the 3,500-square-foot house in a nicer neighborhood. It was as though we were dealing in Monopoly money instead of spending our retirement.

As of this writing, the State Economic Revenue and Forecast Council has released its projection of our state’s future economy: They have increased the projected budget deficit to $3 billion. The Senate Ways and Means Staff projected a $2.7 billion deficit. Interestingly, the governor’s office, which usually offers its own projections, would not release their numbers and has refused comment.

For the last decade, the governor’s office has offered a six-year projection of the budget based on current spending patterns and revenues received. This practice helped previous governors make budget decisions based on a longer-term forecast, taking in consideration spending trends. Last February, the governor instructed her finance officer to cease and desist this usual practice, citing it as “irrelevant.” Really?

The governor, as recently as two weeks ago, insisted that we do not have a budget deficit, but a $700 million surplus. Another Economics 101 lesson: If your expenses exceed your bank account, you have a deficit. Having $700 million stashed away, when your coming expenses amount to $2 billion, means that you are broke.

In a Feb. 15, 2008, article, the Seattle P-I reported on Democrats’ and Republicans’ reaction to projections of this impending deficit. Democrat Rep. Jim McIntire, of Seattle, said: “What I hear is that long-term economic growth prospects remain strong. There is no recession forecast for Washington state but slower growth is here.”

The Republican comment, from Sen. Joe Zarelli, agreed that while the economy was in good shape, “It’s the Democrats’ spending that is out of whack.” He added that the forecast was only bad news “for those who chose to ignore the warning signs in hopes that the economic boom of the past few years would continue to bail out the spending decisions being made here in Olympia.”

What were those spending decisions? Gov. Christine Gregoire’s last budget spent two and a half more times than projected revenues could allow for. That’s irresponsible, regardless of how good the economy looked. Not to mention that the increased spending has not resulted in transportation solutions, education-funding problems or any of the pressing issues that our state faces.

In short, it’s time to stop dancing and pay the fiddler. We can do it, but it requires a change of culture. It requires leadership and discipline. Don’t spend money you don’t have — and don’t vote for people who spend more than you’re willing to give.

Federal Way resident Angie Vogt: vogt.e@comcast.net. For past columns and further commentary, visit www.soundupdate.com.

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