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Timothy R. Clark: Adding to our debt is like freeclimbing El Capitan

SHARE Timothy R. Clark: Adding to our debt is like freeclimbing El Capitan
There are some choices that produce glacial consequences.

There are some choices that produce glacial consequences.

Scott Eells, Bloomberg

Studies confirm that the average college freshman in America goes to bed around 1 a.m. Why the nocturnal pattern? They didn’t go to bed that late as high school seniors. Why the sudden disregard for a sensible bedtime?

It must be the new-found freedom they can’t quite get a handle on.

What the students don’t realize is that freedom can’t be divorced from accountability. Choice can’t be separated from consequence. They are opposite ends of the same stick. When you pick up one end, you pick up the other.

Sometimes we want to pick up the freedom end and saw off the accountability end. We may even look for opportunities to cheat choices of their natural consequences, as if that were possible. The best we can do is delay them.

And yet it’s during that suspension — that space between cause and effect — that we think we have pulled it off. Or, we avert our eyes to what we see coming.

We may freeclimb Yosemite's El Capitan and not fall.

We may not study and still get an A in the class.

We may eat poutine every day and not gain a pound.

We may neglect a child and see her turn out to be a happy, well-adjusted adult.

We may not pay our mortgage for two years, cut a deal with our bank on a short sell and walk away debt-free.

We may drink vodka every day and never become an alcoholic.

We may smoke and still run a five-minute mile.

We may ride a bullet bike without a helmet and never break an eyelash.

We may be sexually promiscuous and never contract HIV.

We may cheat on our tax returns and never get audited. We may have no education and become a billionaire.

If you have done any of these things, I hope you don’t come away with the curious view that somehow you have special immunity from consequence, that inviolate principles were somehow suspended in your behalf. All of these things are knowable risks, and if you somehow avoided them, you and your poor judgment are the exception.

There are some choices that produce glacial consequences. As a result, we have time to convince ourselves that the consequences won’t come. In most of these cases, the consequences become the inheritance of the next generation. This is one of the ways that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children.

Let’s talk about our poor judgment. Consider the national debt. We have come to a place of profound denial and breathtaking irresponsibility. Astonishingly, the political will to change is still missing. It’s missing in our leaders and it’s missing in us. In the short space of 10 years, we have doubled the size of the federal government and nearly tripled our indebtedness. In 2002, the federal debt was $6.2 trillion. Today it’s $16 trillion.

In “The Sun Also Rises,” one of Earnest Hemingway’s characters is asked how he went bankrupt. He responds, “Gradually, then suddenly.”

Some people now warn us that austerity without growth will send the nation into a death spiral. May I ask what further spending without growth will do? And may I also ask what injections of artificial demand in the form of stimulus have done so far? We act like a business betting on the come that it can increase revenues while it refuses to consider the possibility that it should reduce its expenditures. We are a family that cannot afford its lifestyle.

I’m a defense hawk, but do you really believe we can’t wring out a trillion dollars over the next five years by attacking the inefficiencies in the Pentagon budget? All of the entitlement programs are in a similar condition. They are laden with waste and gross inefficiency. Meanwhile, we expand the public sector as our strategy to juice the economy.

As a nation, we’ve been going to bed at 1 a.m. without consequence. We’ve been getting A grades without studying. Now we are free-climbing El Capitan.

We must deleverage the nation. We have enjoyed our freedom, but the gradual consequences, which we choose to deny, will one day become sudden, and there will be much less freedom to go around.

Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. His newest book, "The Employee Engagement Mindset," has just been released from McGraw-Hill. Email: trclark@trclark.net