A Year Without Spending

Some people celebrate “Buy Nothing Day” — which aptly falls on Black Friday — as a protest against the rampant consumerism in modern culture.  The idea is to avoid buying unnecessary items and, instead, to spend more time with family and friends, and, literally, “live freely.”

Rolls of Dollar BillsA British woman took the concept more than a few steps farther, and decided to go for a year without buying anything beyond the basics.  That meant that she paid her mortgage and utilities and not much else, bought food in bulk and cooked her own meals, and rode her bike to work rather than taking the subway.  No dining out or drinks at the pub, no trips to the movies, no new clothes, no travel or vacations, and no luxury items like fancy foods.  She also turned down friends and family who wanted to buy her gifts.

To her surprise, she made it through the year, with the winter months being the toughest.  She saved a lot of money — about $27,000, all told — and found that she had come to enjoy simple things, like a picnic in the park or a walk through a museum that didn’t charge admission.  She also feels that she became closer to her family and friends.  In short, she says she learned that money didn’t buy happiness.

The most instructive part of the woman’s story of consumerist self-deprivation is this admission:  “I’d set myself budgets and spending plans in the past and they’d always fallen by the wayside on my next night out.”  People spend themselves into oblivion because they don’t have the self-discipline to control their behavior, whether it’s sticking to a budget or simply exercising good judgment on spending and refraining from making impulse purchases.  And then, at some point, they look around at a place cluttered with stuff they don’t use and clothes they don’t wear, and wonder where all the money went.

I wouldn’t want to go for a year without traveling, or enjoying a drink out with friends, or savoring a good meal on a special occasion.  Those are some of the things that make like special.  But avoiding unnecessary spending, living a more minimalist, possession-free life, and feeling a certain sense of pride that you’ve got your finances under control affords its own satisfaction, too.

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The Governmental Accountability Problem

On Thursday the State Department’s Inspector General issues a report stating that $6 billion in contracting money spent by the Department over the last six years cannot be properly accounted for. The report noted “significant financial risk” and “lack of institutional control” and, astonishingly, reported that the State Department could not even produce contract files documenting precisely how $2.1 billion was spent.

Perhaps the most damning aspect of the report is the apparent utter lack of concern about accountability in spending our tax money. In the State Department, the inspector general position — which is supposed to be a kind of public watchdog — went unfilled for almost six years. Moreover, there have been fraud warnings and prior reports about slapdash controls and accounting for money shoveled overseas and paid to private contractors, and the State Department failed to address the problems.

I have two reactions to this news. First, this is the kind of story that feeds the fury of fiscal conservatives, who believe that the federal government takes too much of our money and then simply wastes a lot of it. The government takes in and spends so much money that even an astronomical sum like $6 billion is only a drop in the bucket — but we’ll never know precisely how that $6 billion was spent and how much of that money was lost to fraud, corruption, or simple overspending by unconcerned bureaucrats. How could an important position like inspector general go unfilled for six years?

People who support big government spending tend to pooh-pooh the focus on “waste, fraud, and abuse,” but I remain convinced that a federal government that actually had to tighten its belt because of budget reductions would find lots of places where money could be saved or spending reprioritized. At present, with the federal government awash in cash fueled by constant, large-scale deficit spending, the government has no incentive to be careful and prudent in its spending — and as a result reports and warnings about financial accountability tend to be ignored.

Second, this story can’t help whatever presidential aspirations Hillary Clinton may have. She ran the State Department for much of the period when accountability was lacking and warnings apparently were disregarded. As I understand it, part of her pitch is that she would be more fiscally conservative than other Democrats who might seek the presidency — but this report really undercuts the perception of careful stewardship of the public fisc that Hillary Clinton is trying to project. If you strongly believe that the government needs to get its fiscal house in order, how can you vote for someone who presided over a department that couldn’t even document how it spent $6 billion? If a public company were in a similar situation, the CEO would be fired, the SEC investigators would be knocking at the door, and private lawsuits would be inevitable.

It may never happen, but wouldn’t it be refreshing if we elected administrations that actually paid attention to the unglamorous nuts and bolts of accounting for their spending, reassessed whether long-time programs were still truly needed, tried to save a penny here and there, and acted like they took financial responsibility seriously, rather than worrying about immediately jetting off to some faraway location for a photo op with a reset button?

Guns, Guns, Guns . . . And Distraction

Your daily newspaper and your favorite news websites have been dominated recently by news about guns and gun control.  Since the awful shootings at the Sandy Hook elementary school, where a heavily armed lunatic murdered more than two dozen children and adults, our political leaders have been talking a lot about firearms and what we can do to prevent another horrible massacre.

In an odd way, the opportunity to talk about guns must be a kind of welcome relief for our politicians, because the gun control debate lets each party retreat to safe, time-honored positions that appeal to their bases.  Democrats understand that most of their voters will support attempts to license gun owners, register all weapons, and restrict or even ban ownership of “assault weapons” or other firearms.  Republicans, on the other hand, know that their supporters will cheer vigorous defenses of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms and stalwart opposition to overly zealous attempts to regulate gun ownership.

I suspect that all of the talk, talk, talk about guns is, in part, a means of distracting voters from other pressing issues.  Members of Congress and the Obama Administration would rather stay snugly in their gun debate comfort zones than deal with the spending, tax, and budget deficit issues that have far more long-term significance for our country.  With all the talk about guns, how much discussion of those core economic issues have you heard recently?  When those issues are in the forefront, and feet are being held to the fire, there are no easy, pat answers and no rote appeals to political bases.

As terrible as the Sandy Hook shootings were, we shouldn’t let our political leaders divert our attention from the federal debt time bomb and other issues that are restraining our economy.  Yesterday we received an unpleasant reminder of these problems when it was announced that gross domestic product dropped in the fourth quarter of last year.  Imagine:  our economy actually shrank during the hottest shopping season of the year.  It’s time we remind Congress and the President of the paramount need to focus on the hard budget and economic issues, before our economy plunges into another recession.