Why Washington’s Debt Crisis Plans Won’t Work and What Will

“If some people get any cheer out of a $328 billion debt ceiling, I do not find much to cheer about concerning it." [Congressional Record, June 16, 1965, p. 13884].  This quote is from Senator Everett Dirksen speaking on Federal spending almost 50 years ago.  Another quote attributed to him but not precisely what he said is, “A billion here; a billion there and pretty soon you are talking about real money.” Although the exact words spoken are in debate they do seem to characterize his beef with Congressional spending.  What would he say today? The current debt crisis has been pitched as a revenue vs. spending crisis.  While there is no doubt a serious gap between the two, I don’t think that the real solution has been identified. What I find with most of the plans put forward to solve not only the debt crisis but most top down plans for change is they rarely look at the consequences to the performers involved in the implementation. In this case the taxpayers and the government employees who actually spend the money and otherwise do things to make a plan work.

There is no plan, no matter how clever and how good it looks on paper, that cannot be thwarted, undermined or just accidentally screwed up by the ones charged with the actual implementation of the plan. This to me is the troubling aspect of all the current plans. Take for instance the top 2% of income earners; they will pay little more than they are paying now. They have access to top lawyers and accountants who will be able to find loopholes in the current tax code that will escape any congressperson looking to close all loopholes. A current example was reported in the Wall Street Journal this week. "The Costco board voted to give themselves a special dividend to avoid President Obama's looming tax increase. Specifically, the giant retailer announced Wednesday that the company will pay a special dividend of $7 a share this month—that's a $3 billion Christmas gift for shareholders that will let them be taxed at the current dividend rate of 15%, rather than next year's rate of up to 43.4%.” Further, what are the consequences to those charged with “saving money?”  The government is notorious for making cuts that are never realized, not that they cannot be made but it is not to anyone’s advantage to do so. What is the incentive for any government employee to “do more with less?”  There isn't one that I can think of.  All the consequences I can think of favor spending more, not less.  If you don’t spend all the money in your budget, you lose it.  If you ask only for what you need you will probably get less than what you need.

When I was in the Army there was a saying about budgets, “Ask for four, expect 2 and get one.” I have written previously about a plan I refer to as the “Buchwald Plan” that although it was made tongue-in-cheek by the late columnist for the Washington Post, Art Buchwald is in the right direction. (See Federal budget blog.) While it seems frivolous, a version can be made that will create real change in the government that is painless to all parties and energizing to government employees who really need it.  Just think what would happen to the size and efficiency of the government if employees were actually excited about doing more with less while delivering more value to the citizens for their tax dollars. A pipe dream, maybe, but it can be done when behavior is understood and addressed.  

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.