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I’m trying to help a relative get out of a bad fix.
He makes $50,000 a year, but Sam has $54,000 (!) of debt on his credit cards. Worse still, he just showed us plans for a $7,500 cruise next year. “Don’t sweat it,” he said, “I still have room on my Visa!” Crazy, right?
At our big family dinner last month, several wanted to make Sam see the error of his ways. Being his (favorite) nephew, I tried to gently nudge him to face his problem. When that didn’t work, others called him out directly. By the end of the dinner nearly half of us were screaming, “danger ahead!” But my uncle kept laughing it off and telling us about the cool time-share condos, jet skis, and other must-haves he plans to buy over the next few years.
Since he won’t cut spending, we’ve passed him help wanted ads so he could at least boost his salary. “I've got a sweet gig,” he says, “I don’t have to work too hard and I never get my hands dirty. You wouldn't want to see me drilling for oil like my old man. Disgusting!”
Like the rest of the family, I’m at a loss for words. How do we get through to Uncle Sam before he crashes and takes the whole family down with him?
By now, you’ve probably figured out who Uncle Sam is. The U.S. national debt is 108 percent of our gross domestic product, which I translated to the easier-to-grasp “credit cards” and “salary.” The annual deficit, 15 percent of GDP, was translated into what Uncle Sam will borrow this upcoming year. A GDP of about $15 trillion is nearly impossible to wrap your head around; a near-median household income of $50 grand is easier to visualize.
Though an imperfect analogy, the story of Uncle Sam brings our national fiscal crisis into terms that can be discussed around the kitchen table. Even the most profligate family members don't need advanced economics degrees to recognize that the U.S. is in deep trouble.
The political posturing surrounding the “fiscal cliff” is so much kabuki, intending to make politicians on both sides appear fiscally responsible. Let’s face it, the car went over the fiscal cliff years ago — politicians are just pretending to steer so the passengers don't panic.
The panic will come soon enough unless each of us convinces more of our friends, family members — even spendthrift uncles — that spending more than you have is a very bad thing. This simple fact holds true whether you lead a household or the greatest nation on earth.
Follow Jon Gabriel on Twitter at @ExJon.