Halloween may be over, but I'm still having trouble getting to sleep each night. The ghost of my wallet's future keeps showing up.
Every night, that little guy appears, looking pale and gaunt (he is a ghost, you know), turns on his side, and starts talking to me like some kind of nightmarish Muppet:
"I am the Ghost of Wallets Future...rail-thin, and getting thinner every minute! Why have you forsaken me?"
I try to explain that I've been a good saver -- ten percent into my retirement accounts every year, just like I've been told -- and that I pay my bills on time, never run a credit card balance, and live in a house I can afford.
But then the Ghost of Wallets Future just gets angry again.
That's because, for all my good personal behavior, I've been party to the great delusion of modern times. That's the one in which we've collectively pretended as though it's OK to make promises we can't possibly keep -- as long as we can blame the politicians for it and keep asking for tax cuts to make ourselves feel good.
Don't get me wrong: I like tax cuts. They're fun. Rebate checks are even neater -- who can turn down a free check from the government? Rumor has it we might even get another set of them before long.
But the problem we're facing is that everything the "government" is spending -- whether it's billions to rescue the banks, billions more to bail out the automakers, or billions to give cheap prescriptions to everyone over age 65 -- well, it's not the "government" doing that spending at all. It's us. Specifically, it's us today, but we're enslaving ourselves in the future to pay for it. That's why the Ghost of Wallets Future is so hopping mad at me.
After I sat down and watched the movie "IOUSA" the other day, I looked up how much debt we're accumulating as a nation, just from week to week. After all, when I hear a number like $10.6 trillion in Federal debt, I can't even begin to comprehend it. Every time someone tries to quantify trillions in terms like dollar bills laid end-to-end or the number of seconds since the Stone Age, it just seems like too much.
So here's the brutal truth: Every seven days, according to the Treasury Department, the Federal debt is growing by $66 billion.
That's still too much for me to wrap my brain around. I can just barely comprehend that it's just slightly more than Warren Buffett's entire net worth. But even that's hard to put into perspective -- after all, he's the world's richest person.
Taking it down to the daily rate, the government is outspending the taxes it's bringing in by $9,435,064,376 per day. Still too much. I feel like Winnie the Pooh, with a head full of stuffing.
So let's take it down to my individual share: Assuming that the Census Bureau is about right when it says there are 305.6 million of us from sea to shining sea, then that means my personal share of the Federal debt grew by $30.87 today.
And, for just a moment, I feel like everything is under control. What's $30.87 among friends, right?
Except that the Ghost of Wallets Future shows up again to remind me that's not what the government spent today on my behalf, it's just the amount they spent today beyond what I've already sent them in taxes.
And then I start to get angry. It costs me about $3 a day to pay the power bill and the natural-gas bill. My groceries run about $10 a day. Health insurance? $13 a day. In fact, the only thing even comparable to my Federal debt burden is my mortgage payment -- about $38 a day. And that includes my property taxes!
So here's the question: If you knew that, every single day of the week, someone was racking up a credit-card charge in your name that could otherwise buy an average three-bedroom house in the suburbs, would you get angry? With interest accruing every moment?
To be honest, I don't think the Ghost of Wallets Future is even remotely upset enough. What's it going to take before we stop the madness? There are two-year-olds with more self-control than we are showing as a nation -- and those toddlers are much better at saying "No." Maybe we adults should take lessons from them.