Once upon a time, there was a balance sheet. It belonged to a mighty nation in the Western Hemisphere that had grown wealthy and powerful. Its people traversed the globe with confidence and bold plans.
But the balance sheet was sad. It did not feel joy or excitement commensurate with representing a great nation; indeed, the balance sheet had begun to wonder if it mattered at all anymore.
“I don’t understand,” lamented the balance sheet, “why so many people ignore me now. It used to be that people cared what I had to say, sought my wisdom and foresight. Ordinary citizens would read me and ask me questions, nod, and make important decisions. Some even claimed that having our own balance sheet was one of the reasons to form our own country in the first place. Alas, no more. Now people ignore me or worse, they even get angry at me!”
The balance sheet signed and heaved his bulk to a nearby coffee shop. He didn’t have money for a drink, but liked to hear the perspectives of the regulars. As if to confirm his fears, the regulars at the table nearby turned their backs on him. They continued their conversation but increased their volume, the way that people do when bullying a peer.
One of the regulars loudly explained the difficulties of choosing between starting social security at age 62 or age 65, noting he expected to receive benefits through his 90s. Another described the many medicines she used to manage her ailments and complained about being asked to cover a co-pay. The third rationalized the importance of extending our military might to protect democracies and aspiring democracies worldwide. Still another pointed out that no price was too high for honoring commitments to government employees.
The balance sheet winced, then sighed to signal that he was present and could hear their every word. But instead of inviting their discretion, his sigh only intensified their efforts. Backs firmly turned, the regulars proceeded to loudly expound on absorbing state obligations, rebuilding countries, bailing out banks, limiting trade, taxing economic development, and other sensitive topics designed to inflict pain on their former friend.
It worked. The balance sheet could take it no longer. He pulled out his iPad and logged into his Facebook page. He was shocked. His few Facebook friends had defriended him, and they had done so harshly. Rather than turning their backs as had the coffee shop regulars, his virtual community had made it clear that they were downright angry with him.
One former friend wrote, “Enough! Your very existence implies that we are lazy. You are a mean, vindictive balance sheet.” Another scrawled in haste, “Some friend u r. U think u r so important but I know better. U r not real.” A friend of a friend from China with strong nationalist views wrote merely, “Xie xie ni” or “Thank you very much.”
The messages were hard to read, but the balance sheet could not stop. The next was particularly cruel. “You used to be so handsome and trim, but you’ve really fallen apart. You’re a slob and don’t take care of yourself. You embarrass me. You need help. Hope you get it.”
That was enough. The balance sheet logged off and went outside to clear his head. As he walked down the street, loneliness and rejection weighed heavily on him. What could he do? He was just a balance sheet. He didn’t control the inputs. It was the regulars at the coffee shop and his former online friends who made him what he had become. He wasn’t proud to be out of shape. He knew he had lost his edge. Deep down he understood that this was the classic midlife crisis: his best years were behind him—the opportunities, the work ethic, the passion. What possible joy could there be in the future? He’d passed his prime and how those who had relied on him had rejected him.
Something had to change. But how?
“Hello!” cried a young voice. The balance sheet looked up to see a young girl. “You’re a mess,” she announced. The balance sheet nodded.
“Who did that to you?” she asked. How to explain the state of affairs to a child? Balance sheets are complex financial reporting tools capturing liabilities and assets—how could a child possibly understand?
“I bet my mom and dad did this to you. My grandparents, too. And my neighbors and teachers and coaches and my minister…” The balance sheet interrupted her. “It’s true. But how could you possibly know all of that?” he asked.
She explained that he was not the first balance sheet she had seen in a similar mess. Apparently the balance sheets for her state and her city had been moping about recently and appeared equally forlorn. The balance sheet started to explain the complexity of the situation, the off balance sheet liabilities, uncertain accounts payable, and receivables highly dependent on tax policy and the economy and…
She cut him off. “Actually,” she said, “it’s all rather easy. I’m in third grade and we’ve got addition and subtraction down pat. Our country spends more than it makes. We keep increasing that gap. In the end, you look worse and worse. Simple. Right?”
The balance sheet was moved. This girl did not ignore him or curse him as had the adults. She didn’t even blame him for having become so bloated.
As if reading his mind, the girl told him that growing up, she had learned about the balance sheet by overhearing her parents anxious late night whisperings, and in her mind she had pictured him as a monster or nightmare.
“But then,” she said, “I realized that you are not good or bad, you’re just a reflection of who we are as a society. And since my folks and their friends aren’t helping you, my friends, siblings, and I are going to have to take over. Yes, my new friend, it looks like we’re going to be together for a long time.”
The balance sheet felt a faint fluttering of hope. “It’s not going to be easy to help me change,” he cautioned her.
“I know,” she remarked with a wise, knowing look. “But this is America. We can do anything, right?”