11/16/2010 04:16 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

America the Money Drunk

After inheriting a nice, fat surplus from the Clinton administration, America went on a spending spree - as if our rich Uncle Sam had bequeathed to us a nice chunk of cash. The only problem is, Uncle Sam isn't dead... and he needs his money now.

But we spent it. Over the past ten years, America behaved like a Junkie Nation -- hooked on instant gratification, gorging ourselves on real estate speculation, getting high on dizzying financial deals, drunk on rage and revenge after 9/11, and trying to soothe our jangled nerves with fast food, high fructose baked goods, and comfort foods of all types -- not to mention booze, pot, cigarettes, and a plentiful assortment of prescription "happy pills."

Politicians rail against America's addiction to oil -- but that's nothing compared to our addiction to debt. Like all junkies, America suffers from "stinking thinking" about money. We are compulsive spenders run amok with the national credit card. We are money drunks.

Our country is showing the classic characteristics of addiction:

  • Our favorite word is "more." We want more enforcement of our borders, more security from terrorists, more jobs, more Medicare benefits, more Social Security cost of living increases, more help when bad things like hurricanes or oil spills happen, more and better education for our young people, more research on deadly diseases, more innovation, more medical breakthroughs, more technology, more improved infrastructure, more, more, more. The only thing we don't want more of is taxes. Addicts are insatiable and irrational.
  • "Moderation" is not in our vocabulary. We are creatures of extremes, characterized by all-or-nothing thinking and behavior, with wild mood swings from one end of the economic/political spectrum to the other.
  • We alternate between bouts of grandiosity on one extreme and self-criticism on the other. We vacillate between cocky confidence that we are Masters of the Universe, or certainty that our country is going to hell in a hand basket.
  • We incessantly play the blame game. We're quick to point our collective finger at the most convenient target of the moment. First, Bush was the cowboy who would defeat the despicable terrorists; then he was the spendthrift who drove our economy into the ditch. First, Obama was the hero who would save us; now he is the villain who is destroying us with his "socialist" agenda. We are equal opportunity blamers.
  • We look for quick fixes and magic bullets to make it all better. We look for an easier, softer way out of our pain. We have no patience for the slow and steady work of recovery -- we want an instant solution to all our problems.
  • We indulge in magical thinking, living in our own "Made in the USA" version of Never Never Land, where we never have to grow up and no one can tell us what to do. We are lost boys and girls.
  • We believe the pushers and pimps (both political and financial) who tell us they love us and will take care of us as we let them seduce us with their pretty promises and verbal anesthesia. When sober nations like Germany tell us we need to go to financial rehab, we are defensive and defiant. We burst into song: Amy Winehouse's "No, no, no!"
  • We are in deep denial. We shake our heads and collectively cluck, "tch, tch, tch," over our country's skyrocketing bankruptcy rates and mind-boggling personal credit card debt -- quick to judge others for what we are guilty of ourselves.
  • We live for today and ignore the future, much like Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind: "I'll think about it tomorrow."
  • We keep telling ourselves, "We can handle it. It'll be different this time." We seem to have to keep learning the same lesson over and over again. As addicts, we are slow learners, and fast forgetters.

A complete financial meltdown was averted when the federal government stepped in with corporate bailouts and economic stimulus measures - by both Presidents Bush and Obama. But who knows? Perhaps they didn't do us any favors by keeping us out of a second Great Depression.

Maybe we really do need to hit bottom before we'll change our profligate ways. As New York Times columnist David Brooks wisely pointed out, "Some people change their ways when they see the light, but most people change only when they feel the heat."

America needs a national 12-step program to sober up financially. We could call it "Debt and Deficit Anonymous" or "Fiscal Insanity Anonymous" or "Big Spenders Anonymous." We could invite Greece, Ireland, and a few other Debtor Nations to join us. Perhaps we could hold our meetings in a basement conference room at the World Bank. Each week, we would gather in a circle, hold hands, bow our heads, and begin with Step #1: We admitted we were powerless over our debt and that our lives had become unmanageable. For admitting that we're money drunks is the first step toward sobering up and recovering fiscal sanity.