New Year’s resolutions, government-issued

I hope that your New Year is off to a great start. Although any time of year can present an opportunity for a new beginning, now is the time for New Year’s resolutions. I come up with one every year, but I try to make sure its something I can live up to.

The making of New Year’s resolutions is a tradition that goes back a long way. The Romans would begin each year by making promises to Janus, their god of beginnings and transitions, for whom the month January is named. In the U.S., according to Wikipedia, by the end of the Great Depression approximately a quarter of all Americans made New Year’s resolutions. By the start of the 21st century, it had risen to 40 percent.

I found a list of popular New Year’s resolutions on the website Its slogan is “Government Made Easy” and it describes itself as “the U. S. government’s official web portal.” I couldn’t help reflecting on the irony; it has been a difficult year for at least one government website. Government made easy, indeed.

There are 13 popular New Year’s resolutions listed on the site. They include the most common ones such as losing weight and getting fit. Each resolution listed includes a link to web pages that provide additional information. The resolution “eat healthy food” provides a link to the United States Department of Agriculture website. “Manage Stress” links to a website provided by the Department of Health and Human Services. There are a couple of resolutions that link to the National Institutes for Health.

New Year’s resolutions are about taking personal responsibility. Linking each one to a government agency reminds me of Ronald Reagan’s famous quote, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” which he called the nine most terrifying words in the English language. Apparently there’s a government agency for every New Year’s resolution you come up with. The one that particularly caught my eye was “manage debt.” It links to the Federal Trade Commission’s website.

That site has a page devoted to “Coping With Debt.” It asserts that a major contributing factor to experiencing problems with debt is overspending. They have a flair for the obvious that is lost on Congress. The FTC suggests a variety of ways to deal with a personal debt crisis, including bankruptcy. However, it counsels that the best way to deal with a debt problem is to develop a budget, track spending patterns, identify necessary expenses and to prioritize the rest. It provides “useful tools for developing and maintaining a budget, balancing your checkbook, and creating plans to save money and pay down your debt.”

Congress is responsible for overseeing the operations of federal agencies. As such, I’m surprised that they allowed the FTC to publish such subversive information. The federal government has been operating without a budget for years. Raising the debt ceiling, like a broken New Year’s resolution, has become routine. Balancing the national checkbook or paying down debt are out of the question.

Each of us knows that when we borrow money, we have to pay it back. Hopefully we don’t need the government to tell us that. A lender will certainly communicate that to a borrower. Anyone who does not repay a loan will most likely find it very hard to find another lender in the future. Congress acts as if these constraints don’t apply to government but at some point they will.

According to Wikipedia, “the ancient Babylonians made promises to their gods at the start of each year that they would return borrowed objects and pay their debts.” That’s a New Year’s resolution that has stood the test of time. The world has not changed so much in thousands of years as to diminish its relevance.

I wish you a happy, healthy and fulfilling New Year. In 2014, I hope that everyone will ask the question, what is the purpose of government? As of yet, the government does not require us to make New Year’s resolutions. In fact, it should work the other way around. Campaign promises are like New Year’s resolutions, they aren’t made to be broken. If you are among the 40 percent of Americans that make New Year’s resolutions, I wish you success in following through on them.

— Elliot Simon writes from Harpers Ferry

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