Viewpoint: Ward Cleaver Takes On the Budget


I may be an unreconstructed optimist, but I see real progress being made in Washington in reducing the federal deficit. Last year we saw a dramatic drop in the cost of government toilet seats and coffee pots, and this year Gramm-Rudman will take its first bite out of the budget.

I know, the cynics are already discounting Gramm-Rudman. If the courts don't strike it down, Congress will come up with one of its patented end-runs. So say the doomists and gloomists.

I say Gramm-Rudman represents real evolutionary budgetary progress; we have progressed from trying to decide if the ox is to be gored to whose ox is to be gored. And once Congress gets down to the goring, the process is going to be a lot more fun than anyone supposed, and not nearly as difficult.

To illustrate, let us suppose $50 billion needs to be cut. That's a nice bit of cash, to be sure, but only about 5 percent of the total federal budget. With resolute public support, such a trifling amount can easily be eliminated. We must, however, steel ourselves to the pathetic and heart-rending spectacle of all those congressmen, eyes bloodshot, hair tousled, and neckties askew, trooping before television cameras saying it just can't be done. Remind yourself that such talk is just more of the self-serving baloney we're accustomed to hearing from the half-wits we elect over and over to represent us. Just think how easily you could trim 5 percent out of your family's budget. And if you can do it, so can they. It's only a matter of scale.

To prove this, let's take a reasonably prosperous family of four and, show how easily its budget can be cut. The parents, Ward and June, both work and have a combined income of $30,000 after taxes. They have two sons, Wally, 16, and Theodore, 10. Like most Americans, their annual savings are represented by their refund check from the IRS each spring, and that's usually gone by the first of May.

It has recently dawned on Ward that Wally is going to be ready for college in three years, and the family Mastercard limit won't be sufficient to cover the cost. So he decides it's time to start saving. He sets a modest goal of 5 percent of their combined take-home income, which works out to a mere $1,500 a year. "We won't even miss the money," he confidently tells the assembled family.

Ward's intentions are greeted with noncommittal nods. All agree that the first order of business is to write down all the items in their budget that cannot be cut and are therefore off-limits.

There are the mortgage, the homeowner's insurance, utilities, and property taxes. That works out to about $12,000 per year. Then there's the grocery bill, which averages $110 per week. "Wouldn't it be possible," Ward offers tentatively, "to cut out, the Cokes and Haagen-Dazs?" "Jeez, Dad!" is the immediate reply from Wally and Theodore. "How about that carton of cigarettes you get every week? No Cokes, no smokes!"

Ward hastily moves on to the subject of automobile expenses. Ward and June each have a car, and Wally got this nifty '81 Camaro for his 16th birthday. He's already received two speeding tickets, and the insurance is now pushing $100 a month on that car alone. Maybe, Ward pleads, just for a while, until the family finances improve a bit, they could get along with just two cars? "Jeez, Dad!" is the prompt and predictable response from Wally. "Why'd you get me the car if you weren't going to let me keep it? And I'd get laughed off the block if I drove Mom's car. It's a four-door!" "And who'd drive me to baseball practice?" Theodore chimes in. "Well, I certainly couldn't drive Wally's car," June adds. "It's not an automatic." Case closed.

Three car payments, insurance, and gasoline are added to the untouchable list, meaning another $10,200 per year. The family's "fixed" budget items are now up to $27,920 per year. Of the remaining $2,080, $1,000 has to be allotted for clothing and $500 for the orthodontist, leaving only $580 for discretionary spending, most of which will be used on lawn fertilizer, razor blades, perfume, and acne medicine.

"Now look," Ward declares firmly, assuming an authoritarian tone he dimly remembers his father using, "we're not leaving here until we figure out how to cut $1,500 out of the budget."

Reluctantly, Wally and Theodore agree to switch to Wranglers instead of designer jeans ($80 per year). June promises to start doing her own nails ($120). Ward says he can wear his shirts twice before sending them out to be laundered ($132). Everyone agrees that $10 can be saved on groceries each week ($520). Only $648 to go. Under considerable badgering, Ward promises to stop smoking, which will save $468 if he can actually do it. Now they're down to $180. In desperation, Ward decides to reduce his life-insurance policy from $150,000 to $75,000, saving another $275 a year.

They had done it. With just a little effort the Cleavers cut $1,595 out of their budget. Ward felt so good that he decided to use the extra $95 to take the family out to dinner and a movie.

It's going to be just as easy for Congress to cut its budget once it gets the hang of it. And the next time we visit Ward, we'll find out how easy it was to get the family to adopt his line-item veto idea.

Les Blaser is a Dallas businessman and writer.