Paul Prather

Paul Prather: Simple rules apply to waistline, wallet, national budget

This isn't a column about losing weight. It's about economics. But I want to start by talking about weight loss.

As longtime readers of my ramblings know, I've battled fat all my adult life. Mostly I've lost the battle rather than the pounds.

Still, even in defeat, I've learned a few things. I've tried more gimmicky diets than I could list. I've tried positive thinking. I've tried prayer.

I've discovered this: Really, there's only one way to shed blubber and keep it off.

You have to consistently burn more calories than you eat.

That's it. Period. End of argument.

There's no secret, no trick, no ancient Peruvian remedy that will circumvent this single, fundamental, disconcerting truth.

Eat less and burn more. That's all there is.

Here's another troublesome area in which a similar simple principle applies: money.

You can argue Keynesian theory versus supply-side theory. You can yell incantations and dance around a fire, and get the witch doctor to shake his rattle at your credit cards.

Ultimately, the only way to improve your current situation is to earn more or spend less. You have to bring in more money than goes out.

It doesn't matter whether you're a trucker, a graduate student, a multinational bank or the U.S. government.

Earn more than you spend. That's all there is.

If you're struggling, the wisest course is to address both ends of that equation: volunteer for overtime or take a second job while also trimming expenses.

That's why, if I let it, our government would drive me bonkers, Republicans and Democrats alike.

I used to think that when it came to economics, the Republicans had an edge over the Democrats.

The Republicans always favored the rich to the detriment of the middle-class and needy, a stance with which I disagree, being a Christian ("remember the poor" and all that). But at least the Republicans believed in fiscal restraint, limited borrowing, balanced budgets and real-world mathematics.

Then, a decade or so ago, the Republicans underwent a mid-life psychotic break.

President George W. Bush, to cite a visible example, got it in his head that you could simultaneously slash taxes — the government's income — and multiply spending on wars in two countries, and yet, somehow, magically, everyone would prosper.

I sometimes have dreams in which I can fly. That doesn't make it so.

Many experts warn we're headed toward an unprecedented financial disaster.

And the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that Bush's tax cuts and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, combined with the larger economic downturn, explain virtually the entire federal budget deficit projected during the next 10 years, which is a central factor in the looming apocalypse.

By comparison, the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac debacles, the Troubled Asset Relief Program and various other economic recovery measures, all told, will contribute little to the deficit, the CBPP says.

I'm not making a political statement here. I'm making a common-sense statement. You can't gut your income and wildly increase your spending without ending up profoundly in debt and probably bankrupt.

You can't do it with your personal finances — you can't absorb a pay cut while doubling the size of your house and buying a Porsche — and the government can't do it with the national economy.

You just can't do it. It cannot be done.

Even David Stockman, who served as President Ronald Reagan's budget director, has embarked on a public crusade in which he declares the current Republican philosophy "phony" and, in my only slightly exaggerated paraphrase, mad.

This is not, as Stockman has said, to imply the Democrats are better.

They seem to think that all you have to do is repeal a 2 percent tax cut on the rich and everything will be fine. Well, no, it won't. We have to rethink everything, even the way we handle entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

As a nation, we must increase revenue and cut expenses if we hope to recover our solvency. To pretend otherwise is to deny reality.

Not that you asked, but I received my training in economics from reading a guy named Solomon, traditionally considered the primary author of the biblical Proverbs.

Solomon had a lot to say about money. Almost all of it can be summed up in these few principles: Work hard, earn as much as you can, live beneath your means and avoid debt. Then you'll have a surplus. From that surplus save for the future, but also be generous toward the unfortunate.

If you do these things, he said, you'll prosper. You'll incur God's favor. If you don't do these things, you're a fool destined to end up broke and hungry, with no one to blame but yourself.

Whether we're talking macroeconomics or microeconomics, even in the 21st century I find that to be the soundest financial advice I've ever heard.