The United States, the wealthiest nation in the world, has become the biggest debtor nation in the world. That simple, untenable, disgraceful fact explains much of what ails the stock market, the housing market, even the price of food at the grocery market.
It is a lack of leadership that is substantially responsible for our current sorry state of affairs. Leaders are supposed to show us the way. Instead, what we've had for decades, for my entire lifetime, I believe, is leadership that has chosen to pursue personal riches -- in the form of money, power, and satisfaction -- at the expense of the people they represent.
And it continues today. Even on a daily level we endure these slights and abdications of leadership. The lame duck Congress apparently doesn't have enough support from the Republican party to seriously consider a stimulus package and a bailout for the auto industry. Whatever one thinks of these programs, they're at least worth exploring. Instead, as power passes from one administration -- and one party -- to the next, the message from the losing party is "not my problem."
We've got approximately two months before the new administration takes office, along with a significant shift in congressional power. What difference will two months make? The potential for disaster over the next two months is great. From Wall Street to Main Street, everyone agrees that we're in for a world of hurt in the short term.
The current state of affairs, whether we consider what's gone on for decades, for eight years, or for the past couple of months, or even the forecasts for the next couple of months, must primarily be blamed on a lack of leadership from all quarters.
Many are hopeful that things are about to change. Whatever one thinks of President-elect Obama politically, his victory was proof that our nation has the capacity to move forward. He represents a sea change in the previously intractable issue of race in this country. I don't think it's hyperbole to believe that he can help us address our economic principles as well.
We must address them at home, too. While the willingness of our governments -- red, blue, local, state, and federal -- to spend more than it has is the root cause of so much of what ails this nation, it is also that same syndrome which effects virtually every American household as well. What ails our country has also infected our homes.
We can be hopeful that a new message of restraint will come from a new administration. Even given the historical perceptions of democrats, there's early evidence that the soaring oratory of the newest White House resident will include a call for fiscal prudence and a return to the values of an earlier time.
With that in mind, I am putting in my two cents for a new era of austerity, both from the top down as well as from the bottom up. Every household -- from the White House to your house -- needs to re-consider its poor savings and debt-driven spending habits and work towards this new reality of personal financial responsibility. In order to be successful, it needs to happen at every level, including legislative, cultural and spiritual.
America's government showed great leadership in the 1960s by taking up an unpopular civil rights agenda at a legislative and oratorical level. It took, arguably, 40 years for these ideas to fully take root in America. We're more mature as a nation now and ideas travel faster. We can't afford to sacrifice several generations while we re-center our fiscal compass. If we take that long, there may not be much of an American ideal to save anymore.
LEWIS SCHIFF is the executive director of the Inc. Business Owners Council. His latest book is Business Brilliant: Surprising Lessons From the Greatest Self-Made Business Icons.
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