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Tuesday, January 22 , 2019, 7:39 am | Fair 53º


Tom Purcell: The Lure of Spending Other People’s Money

I can’t blame them, really. It’s human nature to want something for nothing.

I speak of two tenants who recently moved into a rental unit I own. I made the mistake of renting the unit for one flat rate that included “free” utilities.

Since the tenants didn’t have to pay directly for their electricity usage, they cranked the air conditioner day and night. There was no incentive for them to turn it off when they were at work during the day or away for the weekend.

Whereas the electric bill for that unit averages about $50 per month this time of the year, their electric bill came in just under $200 per month — for the simple reason that someone else (that would be me) was footing the bill.

I got to thinking about this concept recently. It is the reason our government is so bloated and our deficit and debt (we just exceeded $20 trillion in debt a few weeks ago) are so high.

This is because millions of Americans like the concept of spending other people’s money to benefit themselves — or, to be more precise, they vote for politicians who promise to give them things using other people’s money.

Of course, our politicians never use the word “spend” — they say “investment.” But the dough they spend has to come from somewhere. It comes from you and me — from those who work and earn — and is transferred to those who want stuff.

I prefer to call it what it really is: bribery. Our politicians use our own money to promise things to other people who sell their votes to the politicians who promise them the most.

In 1835, French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville warned of the concept in Democracy in America.

“The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money,” he wrote.

Of course, that ship left port years ago.

Obamacare offers a modern example of how such bribery works.

Obamacare essentially made insurers provide the goodies all of us want — coverage of pre-existing conditions, for instance — without worrying about the cost or who was going to cover it.

Now that Obamacare premiums have exploded, millions will vote for the guy who promises to increase subsidies, paid for by “the rich,” that will reduce those premiums.

“Other people will be made to pay my bills” is way easier for people to grasp than “we need to dramatically reform and simplify our incredibly complex health-care system to unleash competition and efficiency among private insurers and health-care providers to dramatically reduce costs and make insurance affordable.”

That’s a key reason many politicians want the government running everything. During election season, all they need to do to win is to promise more goodies — and proclaim that their opponents plan to cut them.

Such politicians never tell you that, to fund hundreds of new bribes, taxes will have to go up. Or that, to fund the dozens of unsustainable programs we already have, taxes will have to go up more. Economic growth will suffer and, ultimately, everyone will suffer.

But nobody seems to care about that. That is, too few people have the desire or the ability to understand that our government cannot continue spending recklessly forever — we cannot keep borrowing and piling on debt without massive consequences.

To borrow from the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, sooner or later, our politicians will run out of other people’s money.

I learned my lesson. Never again will I include “free electric” in my rental contracts.

Tom Purcell, author of Misadventures of a 1970s Childhood and Wicked Is the Whiskey: A Sean McClanahan Mystery, is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist, syndicated by Cagle Cartoons. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @PurcellTom. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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