For individuals and nations alike, willingness to delay gratification — to forego rewards now for greater rewards later — is an excellent predictor of long-term outcomes; those willing to delay gratification tend to experience greater and more sustainable successes.
In my book on how entitlement attitudes develop and hinder individuals as well as nations, I wrote about testing children’s willingness to delay gratification by giving them single marshmallows and offering them each a second marshmallow if they endured a brief waiting period without eating their first marshmallows. For adults, a good measure of both individuals’ and nations’ willingness to delay gratification is the extent to which we live within our means.
Accordingly, while still giving President Trump’s first State of the Union Address a grade of “A,” the fiscal idealist in me feels compelled to put a “-” after that “A” because the speech touted tax cuts without calling for spending cuts or even mentioning the unsustainable levels of spending, borrowing, and debt in which we Americans collectively are engaging. The realist in me, however, gives the speech an unqualified “A” because, as I’ve studied our fiscal policies through a behaviorist’s lens over the past couple of decades, I’ve come to three tough conclusions about our collective willingness to delay gratification.
Conclusion #1: We’re like passengers on a cruise ship with plenty of cabins, plenty of deck chairs, plenty of food, plenty of drinks, peace, order, entertainment, etc., and even though some of us have been aware — and spreading the word — that the ship is taking on water, a majority of us will be unwilling to lighten the ship by jettisoning nonessential items, much less change course to a safe harbor for structural repairs, until the ship starts listing, items start sliding overboard on their own, and the course ahead becomes difficult to maintain. In other words, a majority of us won’t tighten our belts until we have no practical choice, which means we’ll be doing so in a panic, and it’ll be painful.
Conclusion #2: Regardless of their personal beliefs as to the wisdom of the course ahead, the officers at the ship’s helm fear a mutiny, so they’ll maintain course and speed, if not throttle up, to keep the majority of us happy for as long as they can, forestalling the jettisoning of nonessentials and the course correction — which ultimately must happen — for as long as possible, and then they’ll blame those measures on necessity rather than choice, no matter how much more prudent and how much less painful it’d be to make that choice now. In other words, until it becomes impracticable to do so, politicians of both parties will continue to borrow and spend much more than we give them — and much of that on nonessentials — regardless of whether we give them more or less of our hard-earned dollars.
Conclusion #3: In light of the foregoing, while I’ll continue spreading the word that our ship of state is taking on water, myself being a proficient delayer of gratification, I won’t apologize for accumulating a healthy stash of essentials in my cabin to make my family’s journey back to that safe harbor easier when the jettisoning of nonessentials and course correction ultimately happen. In other words, as I assess the State of the Union, rather than focusing idealistically on the absence of a call to exercise collective fiscal responsibility, I choose to focus realistically on the presence of an opportunity to exercise personal fiscal responsibility — to keep, and wisely invest, more of our hard-earned dollars, so that when our national day of reckoning eventually arrives, it’ll be easier on those of us who do so, and on those whom we’ll be in positions to help.
Brian Russell wanted to learn how people could live together as peacefully and prosperously as possible, so he studied what makes us tick (and got a Ph.D. in clinical psychology), how public policy keeps us in line (and got a law degree), and what motivates us to do our best (and got an M.B.A.). Then, he put theory to the test, practicing both psychology and law, starting his own small businesses, consulting with business leaders and lawmakers, and traveling the world comparing what does and doesn’t work in 40 societies. Now, he shares his expertise in people, public policy, and productivity on national television and radio, in his book, "Stop Moaning, Start Owning: How Entitlement Is Ruining America and How Personal Responsibility Can Fix It," and here on Newsmax. Learn more at DrBrianRussell.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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