In another country also called America, there were no credit cards and excessive debt was seen as a character flaw. In that America, my grandparents and their parents had discussions when they wanted to buy almost anything.

The conversations focused on two questions: Can we afford it and do we need it? If the answer to either question was "no," they didn't buy it.

So much of our personal and public debt in modern America comes from a refusal to ask these questions. We don't need much of what we have and we certainly can't afford it. But we buy it anyway.

The recession may be forcing us to come to our senses, however reluctantly. A Wall Street Journal headline on July 19 could be interpreted negatively, but to me it is a positive: "Cities Rent Police, Janitors to Save Cash."

The gist of the story: Increasing numbers of cities are outsourcing some of the most basic functions of local government because they can no longer afford to provide them. This has the potential of reducing costs, improving efficiency and reducing the size and reach of government. What's not to like?

Why do local governments need to pick up trash, run libraries, or even enforce laws if the private sector can do it just as well, or better, and at less cost to taxpayers? Unions are one reason and control by politicians is the other.

The senior policy adviser to the mayor of San Jose, Calif., Michelle McGurk, is quoted in the Journal story: "These are cases where the question is being asked, 'Is this a core service at the city level?' "

"Faced with a $118 million budget deficit," writes the Journal's Tamara Audi, the city of San Jose dropped its custodial staff and hired "outside contractors to clean its city hall and airport." Estimated savings: $4 million.

Maywood, a tiny city southeast of Los Angeles, is dismissing its entire staff and contracting with outsiders to perform all city services, including the police. A major reason for the police layoff was a decision by the city's major insurance carrier to cancel coverage because of the high number of lawsuits against the Maywood Police Department, which amounted to $21 million in legal expenses and judgments. "Without insurance, Maywood is prohibited from hiring people who work directly for the city."

What if this practice were to catch on in other cities? It would surely boost employment in the private sector, as more businesses would take over services now performed by government.

Politicians are probably not going to like this much because it will likely erode their power and perks. But taxpayers should love it because it means saving money and there will be fewer excuses for not reducing taxes.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is on a similar track, proposing "a mass transfer of power from the state to the people," as the London Telegraph characterized it. Localities would be asked to run bus services, set up broadband Internet networks and take over recycling duties, among other tasks.

A recent Washington Post series underscored the problem of government waste, especially at the federal level. In what was formerly known as "the war on terror," the story tells of a hodgepodge of many overlapping agencies and redundant work: "The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work."

Many Americans may not understand the inner workings of government, but they understand waste and duplication. Government claims it can't afford to cut anything, but it never asks us if we can afford (or want) to pay more taxes.

Republicans and conservatives might wish to campaign on a promise to streamline government by outsourcing work government has no business doing if it can be done better and less expensively in the private sector. The unions won't like it, but those of us paying the bills will. So, too, would my grandparents and their parents.

Examiner Columnist Cal Thomas is nationally syndicated by Tribune Media.