Once, while editor of a daily newspaper, I was involved in the annual budget get-together with the publisher and all department heads. It had come to that point in the proceedings when the advertising manager said that he could no longer squeeze another dollar from an already reluctant market. The time had arrived to deal with expenses to meet the relentless demands of the corporate ownership in a far distant city.
"I have an idea," I said brightly as a newcomer to the executive suite, "let’s cut out all travel. None of us will go to conventions or out-of-town professional associations."
How unselfish and self-sacrificing, I thought.
However, a grimace appeared on the publisher’s face as he wrote down the projected savings on the "expenses cut" side of the white board.
In the next few days, fellow department heads felt no compunction in telling me about the scene when they told their spouses that they would not be accompanying them to conventions in Miami Beach or to seminars in the Rocky Mountains. The reaction culminated during a brief and cool conversation with the publisher’s wife at a social event.
"So I hear I’m not going to San Francisco this year because of you," she said.
The whole thing was — in today’s language — "a hard decision."
There are not many hard decisions being made in Washington, D.C., this summer as is much ado about tactics in search of a strategy.
The question of whether the nation is going to continue to pay its bills (debt ceiling) and live within its means (deficit reduction) is, so far, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Politicians are fond of equating governmental budgets to the family budget. But unlike the family living beyond its means and pulled up short by a notice from the credit card company, there is no one to say no to the government.
The national problem is difficult to comprehend because of the meaning of trillion. One trillion dollars, or the number 1 followed by 12 zeros, is lots of money. A mathematician put it like this: "One million seconds is about 11.5 days, one billion seconds is about 32 years while a trillion seconds is equal to 32,000 years."
The mathematical reason for the deficit is this: The nation is spending more than it is earning by increasing programs and services without increasing taxes.
The philosophical reason is selfishness, a national acquiescence to the language of marketing: "You deserve," "You can have it all."
No. He, she, they and I can’t have it all, nor do we deserve it.
The cure for selfishness is self-denial. Giving up, doing without and living as member of a community is not a popular concept in a nation of individuals who are constantly told that they deserve and can have it all.
Beyond tough choices, hard decisions — whichever cliché works as proposals surface — lies something more fundamental: the cry of the poor.
"They do not have powerful lobbies, but they have the most compelling claim on our consciences and common resources," said a statement from Circle of Protection, a broad coalition of high-profile Christian leaders and heads of aid organizations. The organization is against budget cuts affecting government programs supporting the poor and vulnerable at home and abroad.
A budget compromise that ignores this "would be flawed public policy and a moral failure," Catholic leaders said in a letter to the president and members of Congress.
Kent, now retired, was editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle.