There are good times, and there are bad times.
One thing in this life is certain: if you are currently living through one of those, the other will come eventually. If an economic boom is happening, there will be an eventual slowdown and recession. If you are in the middle of economic calamity, there will come days when economic expansion happens again.
Obviously, you already know that. I’m not breaking any new ground by saying any of that.
Unfortunately, as much as we all intellectually understand this, we are continually failing to behave as though we do.
After the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, the United States of America went on an unprecedented run of economic growth. As of the beginning of this month, the U.S. economy had grown for 128 consecutive months. Indeed, it was the first time in American history that a decade began and ended without a recession occurring.
While it is true that much of that growth was somewhat anemic — through the early 2010s it was the slowest recovery since World War II — it was still growth, and it has only accelerated in the last several years.
And what did we do in those years? Did we take the opportunity to put the nation’s fiscal house in order and put ourselves on strong footing to better survive the next downturn?
In a word, no.
The Great Recession technically ended in June of 2009 in the United States. In September, the annual accounting for the national debt showed that it stood at $11.9 trillion. Today, the debt stands at $23.3 trillion, roughly double the figure from 10 and a half years prior.
Leaders in Washington, despite massive pressure from the American people, have failed to get their finances under control, and reckless spending and even more reckless debt remain the name of the game. There are no adults in the room, Republican or Democrat, that are willing to do the necessary thing, and deal with this problem.
At the state level, requirements for balanced budgets have meant that the recklessness has been somewhat limited, but it has still happened.
As regular readers of this column will know, I have repeatedly been very critical of what I consider reckless and irresponsible growth in spending by Gov. Janet Mills and legislative leaders in the past year.
I heard the same arguments time and time again. Maine “needed” to spend exponentially more money, because things have been so neglected under Gov. Paul LePage. Supposedly, LePage cut government to the bone, and the state was falling apart as a result. This, of course, despite the fact that LePage himself grew spending by a billion dollars in total over his eight years in office.
So, despite the fiction of that argument, we started making it rain with cash, adding $800 million in additional spending in one budget cycle. A proposed $239 million bond package later that year. A $127 million supplemental budget. And still, unmet needs in roads and the persistent wait list issue meant that there would probably be a move to spend even more later.
About a year ago, I wrote a column in which I tried to caution against this avalanche of spending, and my fear was that reckless spending in the good years would prove to be destructive in the lean years.
“Let’s say that this was a good year at work,” I said at the time. “Let’s say that the company you work for is so pleased with you that they give you a small raise, and say that next year, if everything goes equally well, they’ll give you a bonus reward.”
I went on to ask whether or not you would decide to blow that extra cash in the hope that next year would be a good year too, or whether you would be more careful.
Of course, most of us would be careful. As much as we’d like that new car, or that addition on the house, we really should make sure we can truly afford those things, and that we aren’t setting ourselves up for future bankruptcy.
In government, the boom years are the only opportunity we will ever have to be fiscally responsible, pay down debt, and save money for the need we may have in the next downturn.
Instead we have spent too much, added debt, and failed to save appropriately for the future. And now, when a massive crisis happens and the country and state are asked to respond, our ability to do so is going to be limited, and will likely only make the existing problems we have worse.