“Put something aside for a rainy day.”
It is easier to hear that message when times are great, but it is a lesson better understood when times are bad.
The typical state, city or town has a “rainy-day fund” tucked away in its budget. This is unspent money not earmarked for anything in particular. Just to have on hand in case there is a sudden need.
Not so the federal government. To Uncle Sam, a rainy day simply means going deeper into debt (though Sam does have a stockpile of petroleum squirreled away, just in case).
The COVID-19 crisis has led to huge leaps in spending for all states, and has sharply curtailed revenue flowing into cities and states from taxes and other sources. In other words, it has been storming.
Right now, governments with rainy-day funds are perhaps wishing they had saved more. Rainy-day funds usually aren’t large enough to deal with fiscal hurricanes or typhoons or 40-day floods.
Rainy-day funds can dry up quickly. In the current crisis, the rainy-day funds, by and large, have provided just a fraction of the needed help. Governments — along with businesses and households — are running out of money.
Should households and businesses have their own rainy-day funds? Well, in times like these, such a fund makes a big difference.
Our household this week received the federal stimulus check that many have already received and others eagerly await. The missus and I got a check for $2,400 ($1,200 per individual, $2,400 for couples who file jointly).
“How will we spend this money?” my wife asked, jokingly. It was a jest, for by now she knows the drill. We tuck it safely away and don’t look to spend it. Eventually a need will surface. Surgery. A car repair. Will our refrigerator stop working? Or furnace? Will the roof hold up?
Those are items that, when the need arises, must be purchased. So this money will go into our rainy-day fund. To deal with the unexpected.
I have championed rainy-day funds all my life (though many of my relatives went the opposite way). It began when I was a young kid reading a book called, “Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors” printed by Scholastic in 1965. It was about Joseph, son of Jacob, from the book of Genesis of the Bible.
Joseph was good at interpreting dreams. So good that it proved to be his “get out of prison” card in Egypt when the Pharaoh dreamt about seven thin cows devouring seven fat cows, and seven withered ears of grain consuming seven lush ears of grain. The Pharaoh wanted to know the dream’s meaning. The Pharaoh’s royal cup-bearer, once a cellmate of Joseph’s, remembered Joseph’s ability to decipher dreams and recommended him to the Pharaoh.
Joseph was summoned from prison. The dream, said Joseph, meant seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine.
This Pharaoh was wise and put Joseph in charge of preparing for the seven years of famine. Joseph made sure the nation built huge storehouses of grain, not squandering any, for once the famine came the grain would be needed to thwart starvation.
Joseph’s prediction came true. Seven years of plenty, and then famine struck. All the neighboring countries were starving, and went traipsing to Egypt to buy or trade for grain. Egypt was the only place around with grain to spare. No other nation had prepared for a possible famine.
Well, folks, that remains my favorite Bible story.
Sure, a few thousand years have passed since then, but people are still people and nations are still nations. Most don’t prepare for famines. Especially not fiscal famines.
But history keeps repeating itself. Good times are followed by bad times, followed by good times, followed by bad times, etc.
Bad times — such a famines, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the Great Recession, and viral pandemics — are when we learn difficult lessons. Good times — such as the 1920s, 1990s, and the past few years — are when we ignore the past and behave as if the good times will last forever.
But good times don’t last forever.
So if you still have a job, be thankful. If you have a job and receive a stimulus check, sock it away. That might not be what Uncle Sam wants you to do with it, but it is a way to store some grain for a time of famine.
Just as Joseph would do.
If you have consumerism questions, send them to Arthur Vidro in the care of this newspaper, which publishes his column every weekend.