Fiscal Cliffs, Kicking the Can Down the Road, and Other Failures

Aaron P. Graft

January 28, 2013

Prioritizing immediate gratification versus building value over the long term is on full display in Washington, D.C. these days. No one has been able to craft a solution to the fact that spending more money than you make will eventually leave you bankrupt – even if you have a printing press.

Human beings are wired from birth to seek instant gratification. Kids want dessert first. Babies want to be fed right now. Conversely, adults are supposed to understand the natural law of choices and consequences. We know that “If it feels good, do it,” is a shortsighted way to live. That’s why God gave us brains and parents – both are there to cast a vision for us beyond gratifying the next desire. It is impossible to run a life, household, company, or country well when you only make short-term decisions.

For example, I went to Haiti in 2010 to serve alongside local relief agencies. When I flew over the island of Hispaniola, I didn’t need to see a fence to know where the border was between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. One on side, there were thick forests. On the other, bare ground. The lush side was the Dominican Republic. The barren side, Haiti.

Why are they so opposite even though these countries share a single island? It is the long-term effect of short-term decision making. There is no investment in infrastructure, garbage rots where it lies, and the land is depleted of all resources. That is Haiti today. Most Haitians live every day just to get through the day because that is what it takes to survive. There is no forest, because every tree is cut down and used for firewood by a family who desperately needs it.

I am well aware that poverty is a complex issue and the tragedy of Haiti has its roots in many things outside the control of the people currently living there. This post is about U.S. failings, not Haitian ones. Collectively, we in the U.S. are not as physically desperate as Haiti or other developing countries, but we suffer from the same condition of short-term thinking. The fiscal leadership of our country has been a colossal failure in long-term value creation over the last 100 years. Conversely, we have been phenomenal at insulating ourselves from making hard choices by spending money we don’t have. Between the Democrats and Republicans, there is plenty of blame to go around.

The market correction of the last 4 years has given us an opportunity to look in the mirror and see the problem. We have a historic opportunity to change course, but it seems to be slipping through our fingers. Instead of a once-in-a-generation opportunity for statesmanship, we are running from one standoff/crisis/cliff/debt ceiling to another. That is no way to run a country.

Will a real leader please stand up? Will someone care about creating value more than the next opinion poll? Can someone please acknowledge that we can’t have it both ways – no new taxes and no cuts in spending? This is a solvable problem.

As the leader of a company who employs 118 hardworking people and serves hundreds of customers in multiple industries across the country, I would like to be able to plan for our future. Our senior leadership team is tasked with evaluating the market as we craft our strategic plan for the next year and beyond. This strategic plan affects our budgeting and lending decisions, which in turn have a profound impact on our team members, clients, and stakeholders. Our ability to evaluate the market would be much improved if we could rely on our elected leaders to actually lead us — to make sound decisions based on realistic assumptions for long-term value creation. Such leadership is the opposite of kicking the can down the road until it flies over a fiscal cliff into another Great Recession. Let’s all hope that reason and statesmanship prevail. The stakes are too high for anything short of that.