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Government won’t bring back prosperity. Here’s what will

Rick Newman
Columnist

Raise taxes. Cut taxes. Spend more. Spend less. These are the basic ideas in Washington for how to revive the middle class and restore American prosperity. As everybody knows, Republican and Democratic ideas basically cancel each other out, which is why Washington doesn’t accomplish much these days.

Are you expecting a breakthrough? Neither am I. That’s why I explored ways ordinary Americans can restore their own prosperity—and stop waiting for a feckless government to do it—in my new book Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom.

There’s a lot, it turns out, that all of us can do to safeguard our own fortunes and enhance our prospects, as Aaron Task, Editor-in-Chief of Yahoo Finance, and I discuss in the video above. We’ve grown accustomed, however, to outsourcing prosperity. We rely on tax breaks to give us an edge and government programs to bail us out if we get into trouble. We count on employers to give us raises and lay off somebody else (not me!) if they have to trim the fat. We blame politicians or fat-cat CEOs or anybody, really, other than ourselves if something goes wrong and we fall behind.

The virtue of self-reliance

Here’s a major national problem that politicians rarely talk about: We’ve lost the knack for self-reliance, a core American trait that has been integral to the rise of the world’s only superpower and has helped America rebound from disaster. We revere the Founding Fathers but fail to emulate the self-sufficiency they practiced. The 40 years from 1960 to 2000 were an unprecedented epoch of wealth creation in America, the era that produced the vast middle class we think of today as the backbone of the nation. But widespread prosperity also bred complacency that is manifesting itself now in a chronic shortfall of economic resilience—at all socioeconomic levels, in every industry and part of the country.

Pleas for greater self-reliance are sometimes used as code for shrinking government and cutting back aid to the needy. That’s not the kind of tough love I propose. Government has become a huge, self-perpetuating industry that will function in its fractious, maddening way no matter what you or I do. If we spent as much time and effort building personal self-reliance as we do complaining about government, it would probably amount to a potent economic stimulus program dwarfing anything policymakers could dream up.

Here’s how individuals can build their own economic self-reliance. Start by doing a “dependency audit” evaluating all the institutions you’re dependent on. Some you can’t do much about — you get power from the local utility, for instance, and it makes no sense to generate your own power. You may discover, however, that you’re dependent on borrowed money to finance everyday things, including many you don't really need. If so, you’ve outsourced your personal prosperity to lenders that regard you as nothing more than an account number in a computer system.

Your livelihood may depend on a big company that could axe your entire division tomorrow. Do you have a backup plan? Or two? If you’re a homeowner or typical worker, you may not even realize that you depend on a bevy of tax breaks such as the mortgage-interest deduction and the deductibility of employer-provided health insurance that could become endangered in a few years when Washington starts to run short of cash (which simple math dictates it will).

'Good for the economy'

Maybe it’s OK with you that others control your economic destiny. It’s not OK with me, which is why I wrote Liberty for All in the first place. Part of the economic miracle that followed World War II in the United States was a massive amount of consumer spending premised on the belief that owning more stuff made your life better. Marketers convinced us that buying a home, two cars and a front-loading washing machine was “the American Dream.” The financial industry pitched in by finding endless new ways to buy nearly everything on credit. Two-thirds of U.S. GDP today comes from consumer spending, a factoid repeated constantly in the financial press as if this is normal and virtuous.

Policymakers love to remind us that it’s “good for the economy” when Americans spend nearly everything they earn. But with the wealth gap widening and the wall between haves and have-nots getting higher, what’s good for the economy can be very bad for many of the people who make up that very same economy. Nobody, however, tells you to spend as little as possible, save 50% of your income and buy everything you must have with cash, though some people would undoubtedly be better off if they followed such guidelines.

Building economic self-reliance doesn’t have to require dramatic lifestyle changes. Emerging strains of consumers known as minimalists, essentialists, life hackers and declutterers look for ways to rid their lives of needless stuff while spending only on things that truly improve their lives — a list that can get pretty short once we wean ourselves from the buzz of buying. Making shrewd choices about the kind of education you pay for and the skills you keep adding to your resume can give anybody added leverage in the constant tug-of- war between employers and workers, a move that makes you somebody employers need, instead of the other way around. Liberty for All describes dozens of other things many people can do to take (or retake) control of their financial lives.

Simply accepting the full burden of self-improvement -- instead of assuming the government or the company or somebody else should point you toward prosperity, and maybe chauffer you there -- can be a remarkably liberating way to reclaim financial independence. Your financial destiny is too important to entrust to somebody else — especially those jokers in Washington.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.