I've often joked that people end up in politics or media because they can't do math (yours truly included), but at the moment my joke is not looking like such a laughing matter. Though much of the coverage of the debt-ceiling debacle has focused on the political divisions it has reinforced, there appears to be at least one thing that this mess has probably helped Americans agree on: Many of our elected officials know a lot less about finance and economics than those responsible for the financial future of an entire country should. Even more terrifying, many appear to know even less about such matters than we do. (If you have managed to do things like pay your taxes and child support in full and on time, you're already well ahead of a few of them.)
As I noted on The Dylan Ratigan Show, both of the major political parties invest resources training promising candidates on the ins and outs of media interviews, fundraising and general politicking. But instead of investing in these types of classes (and the consultants who teach them), it appears that many of these candidates turned congressmen, would have been better served investing in, and enrolling in freshman level accounting and economics classes.
I have previously written about the irony of elected officials with their own financial woes lecturing the rest of us on fiscal responsibility. (Here's looking at you Rep. Joe "Tea Partier/Deadbeat Dad" Walsh. Click here to see a list of the most financially challenged members of Congress.) So this latest round of political posturing has got me thinking. Maybe we've been asking candidates the wrong questions all of these years. Instead of asking questions like, "Have you ever cheated on your spouse?" or "Have you ever smoked pot?" how about asking "Have you ever bounced a check?"
And instead of just having litmus tests for specific issues like gun control, maybe the time has come for us to administer more practical, real world tests to candidates seeking political office to gauge their knowledge of real world financial issues. I'm not joking. Maybe the test could be administered with a timer during a televised debate, perhaps providing us with some quality reality TV for a change. So what would such a test consist of? Well below are a few suggestions that could possibly help us establish whether or not a candidate for office is qualified to have any say on our financial matters, or at the very least whether or not they are smarter than a fifth grader. (Feel free to add your own additions in the comments section below.)
Candidate Money Matters Pop Quiz
- Using only your current credit card balance, monthly minimum payment, and interest rate as a reference, please calculate exactly how long it will take you to pay off your current balance. (No cheating by glancing at your statement or calling a credit card customer service rep.)
- When was the last time you balanced your checkbook? How often do you do so? (Bonus points: An imaginary checkbook will be provided. You will be asked to balance it in the time allotted.)
- The median American income is 45,000. Pretend that you are not a six figure earning elected official or elected official-to-be. But instead pretend that you are earning a 45,000 base salary, like one of the "average" Americans you are seeking to represent. How much do you need to set aside each month to have an adequate three-month emergency fund?
- How much does it cost to raise an American child from birth to adulthood? (Bonus points: Approximately how much do you need to set aside specifically for higher education for one American child?)
- Without using any sort of reference for assistance (such as google or a campaign aide), please define what a FAFSA form is. (If your first response is "What's a FAFSA form?" Please put your pencil down and turn in this test. You are disqualified from seeking federal office. Or at least you should be.)
- What is the current value of the U.S. dollar compared to Euros?
What am I missing? What financial questions do you think elected officials should prove themselves capable of answering before posturing that they know more about fiscal matters than the rest of us? Please share your thoughts.
Keli Goff is the author of The GQ Candidate and a Contributing Editor for TheLoop21.com, where this piece was originally published.