Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A McDouble or Sugar Snap Peas?

Our personal choices mirror our politics

I'm trying to lose a little weight. On Facebook earlier this week I posted that the cost of an 8-ounce bag of sugar snap peas was three times the cost of a McDouble. A friend responded: "Yes, but the long-term associated health costs may even the playing field."

And there, in a nutshell, is the problem with Congress and its budget process. The old adage "a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips" is appropriate for the way Congress approaches its fiscal duties. There's little moderation.

When the economy is slack, one group wants us to spend our way back to prosperity while the other wants to take less from taxpayers. When times are good and the money's flowing in, one faction is spending like crazy while the other is slashing taxes because "it's the people's money". This two-fisted approach is akin to binge drinking without acknowledging the hangover that awaits.

The October issue of Pediatrics notes evidence that the rate of "childhood obesity is stabilizing" with kids getting more physical activity and eating more fruits and vegetables. The moral for Congress? Balance – not in the handcuffs from a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution but in terms of a balanced approach to fiscal discipline. For more than 20 years we've wanted it both ways – lots of spending with low taxes – regardless of the economic climate. The current tussle between the legislative and executive branches, while painful, may signal that the worst of the hangover is now.

The time for government austerity is when the economy is strong, not when it's struggling. Likewise the time for greater-than-average government spending is when the economy is cool, not when it's hot. There are practical reasons for doing so: offset some of the excess or slack in the economy; buy goods and services when prices are low and labor available; issue debt when interest rates are low and retire debt when interest rates are high. And, over the course of time, the average – not every annual budget – should balance. All of these are prudent actions, not ones driven by ideology or patronage.

Look, it's OK to hit the drive-thru every once in a while. But you have to exercise and eat your veggies, too.