Balancing the budget should be an easier task


February 26, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

You don't have to be a Harvard economist to maintain a budget. Most people have one. Some use a simple notebook. Others punch numbers into a home computer. And there are those who keep the figures in their heads.

Whatever method used, it's a simple enough process. You look at your paycheck, and it tells you how much is coming in.

Then you total your expenses, which tell you how much is going out.

You subtract the expenses from the paycheck. If anything remains, you're ahead of the game, and you can buy something, save, invest or whoop it up.

If you break even, you've kept the wolf from the door for another week.

But if more goes out than comes in, you can have a problem.

To solve the problem, you have to spend less or earn more or borrow or steal or become a deadbeat.

The traditional budget process is so simple, in fact, that even a wino panhandler understands it. He knows that to maintain his lifestyle, he has to mooch enough money for a bottle of skullpopper, a bite to eat and maybe the price of a flophouse cot.

So why doesn't the president of the United States, with all of his brainy economic advisers, understand it? Or the 535 members of Congress, with their thousands of staffers? And the enormous federal bureaucracy?

They claim to understand, but to the uneducated eye, it often appears that they don't. Or if they do, they're in a contest to see how thoroughly they can confuse each other and the rest of us. And if that's what they're trying to do, they're succeeding.

It's been about a week since President Clinton brought out his economic program. Since then, the Republicans in Congress have said his numbers make no sense, that he is spending more, taxing more and borrowing more than he admits to.

Of course, that's to be expected from Republicans. In their new role as the loyal opposition, they are expected to crab, sneer and back-stab. It is part of our great political tradition.

But even Clinton's own people can't seem to agree on how much is coming in and where it's coming from, or how much is going out and where it's going. Every time one of his bright boys pops up on a TV show, we get a new set of numbers. The figures can even change between the beginning of the show and the sign-off. It's as if they jab pocket calculators during the commercial breaks.

The confusion carries over to the flocks of economists who flutter across the TV and financial pages. Some say it's the boldest plan since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal or Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Others say it's a colossal scam and Clinton is just juggling numbers and cooking the books. There are even some who say it is bold and daring and kind of a scam rolled into one.

This brings to mind the economist who once told a congressional committee that asked him to make some long-range forecasts: "Anything can happen, and it probably will."

In the case of Clinton's program, he'd probably say: "The plan could be anything, and it probably is."

Does it have to be so confusing? True, we're talking billions, which isn't chump change, although in Congress the mention of anything less than a billion brings on yawns.

But years ago, the federal bookkeepers hunched over thick ledgers scratching in numbers with ink-dipped pens. And they managed to come up with understandable figures. Later, the clunking adding machines were considered a great leap forward.

Now government is stocked with giant computers that in a twinkling can do the work of thousands of bureaucrats using ink pens or adding machines. So what has happened? We have more bureaucrats, and we're more confused.

In minutes, the computers can do the work of thousands of mathematicians and CPAs, but what is the result? We still can't get straight answers.

Maybe we should demand that they go back to counting with their fingers and toes.

Or it might be that the numbers aren't the source of the confusion. The problem could be the new happy-speak language that Clinton has brought to economics. Taxes have become "contributions." Spending has become "investing." ("Yes, Your Honor, I plead not guilty to contribution-evasion. I failed to file a return because I didn't like the way the government was investing my money.")

But my favorite Clinton-speak is the new definition of rich, which my dictionary says means "possessing great material wealth."

The way Clinton defines the word for contribution-gathering purposes, a deputy fire chief in Chicago, with a wife who teaches in the public schools, could now be considered "rich."

As hard as I try, I can't imagine Robin Leach saying: "Join us now as 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous' brings you a glamorous deputy fire chief, standing in zero weather at a 4-alarm blaze with an icicle on his nose, while his dazzling wife watches the metal detector so pistols won't be brought into her classroom."

It used to be that "old rich" meant fifth-generation millionaires living the good life off the family fortune.

Old rich suddenly means any geezer in Florida who mistakenly thought he was being prudent and self-reliant when he stashed something for his old age. The rascal will have to be careful not to find and sell too many lost golf balls or he might jump into the super-rich bracket.

Yes, it's all very confusing right now. But when Congress takes over the budget process, maybe some of the befuddlement will go away.

?3 Sure it will. And Madonna will enter a convent.

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