UC Irvine water polo coach Ted Newland once told me that his players would learn much faster if he could put electrodes on their, ah, most sensitive parts and shock them each time they made a mistake.
“Humans are slow learners unless they feel pain,” Newland says.
With finances, we are very slow learners; many of us live beyond our means.
As a society, we’re worse. The state of California has $51 billion in outstanding debt, and the U.S. is $10.2 trillion in debt.
Coach Newland isn’t the only wise man who’s recently popped into my consciousness. So has John Moorlach, chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors. Moorlach’s specialty is predicting financial meltdowns, and he’s continually warned us of bleak consequences unless we get government spending under control.
I’m wondering if people are feeling enough pain now to listen to Moorlach. He’s been virtually alone in having the courage to attempt to get government’s financial house in order without caring about what voters, union leaders and fellow politicians think of his plans.
He gained national attention in 1994, when he predicted Orange County’s bankruptcy more than six months before it happened. At the time, almost everyone regarded Moorlach as an alarmist kook.
As supervisor, he’s taken on powerful unions and angry public employees to sharply reduce the county’s spiraling debt. He led the charge to reduce unfunded public retiree benefits from $1.4 billion to $400 million. He’s spearheaded a lawsuit to roll back unfunded, retroactive pension benefits given to county employees that could one day again bankrupt the county. And, predicting the housing downturn, he insisted in 2006 that the county had used up its reserves.
“We’ve got to stop living in denial,” says Moorlach, who sees his foray into politics as part of his life’s purpose. “If we don’t, we’re toast.”
Moorlach’s plan is as old-fashioned as a slide rule: Don’t spend more than you take in. Create a surplus for the rainy day that’s going to come. And if public employee pension and retiree benefits threaten to swamp your budget down the road, show the numbers to union leaders and point out to them that if they want those retirement benefits, the employer needs to be financially viable.
“The unions will love me 30 years from now when their pensions and health benefits are intact,” Moorlach says.
Powerful unions and special interest groups, weak politicians and apathetic voters have allowed this spending spree to continue.
Just as he did in 1994, Moorlach is yelling from the rooftops that we’ve got to act now before our government implodes. And, once again, few people are listening.
I asked Moorlach if he ever despairs at being a lone prophet.
“All you can do is tell people the truth,” he says philosophically.
It’s just my fantasy, but I would love to vote John Moorlach for president of the United States. But how about something more realistic: Moorlach for governor in 2010. The financial crisis that California will be engulfed in might just serve as the electrodes to the voters’, ah, sensitive parts to get them to pay attention to our sage.