Saturday, March 23, 2013
Government Spending ... What if ... ?
The last few years--well, ever since the 2008 financial meltdown--some politicians have managed to push to the top of the national agenda ladder an item that doesn't perch there very often: government spending. Somehow, our other pressing national concerns (employment, war, poverty, energy, immigration, education, health care, violence, global climate, etc.) must occupy lower rungs--or even get off the ladder altogether and move nearer the end of the line.
Of course, not all economists think government spending at a time like ours is a bad thing--principal among them, Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, who writes for the New York Times a couple of days a week. But Krugman is a divisive, polarizing figure, so I'll not drag him into this (even though I just did). Instead, I want to write briefly about how "government spending," like so many other words and phrases, means something different depending on where we stand.
First of all--it's evident that we all like government spending that benefits us, our loved ones, or causes we care about. If you're on Social Security and Medicare (as I am), you think that spending on those programs is great. (If you're twenty-two, working on your first job, you're probably not too crazy about those deductions from your paycheck: After all, you will never get old.)
And if you or your loved ones are in the military, you don't have a problem with military spending--with VA medical benefits--with military pensions. My mother loves my dad's pension from the Air Force, benefits that compose a serious percentage of her monthly income. But think about it: She's 93 years old (my dad died more than thirteen years ago); my dad retired from the Air Force back in the 1960s. So for--what?--about a half century Mom has been receiving the financial benefits from Dad's military service that ended long, long ago. Fair? Our family thinks it's great. Someone else might wonder why he or she has to pay taxes to support some old woman in Massachusetts. And, of course, if you're a pacifist, you have different thoughts altogether about the military items in the federal budget.
What if your local school receives state aid? What if you're living on a pension from a teaching career that ended in 1997 (I am)? What if they're paving the pot-holed street in front of your house? What if you drive to work every day over a long bridge over a deep river? What if you've lost your job and are having trouble finding a new one? What if you attend a state university? Or work at one? What if your children are hungry? What if you use your local library? What if you have no private medical insurance and your kid gets injured? What if you raise corn in Iowa? What if your house catches on fire? Or someone steals your car? What if a new virus emerges? What if you like your food inspected? Your water? What if you work for an aircraft company? What if you drive on an interstate highway? What if ... ?
Well ... it's pretty evident that we could continue with what-if's? for quite a while.
And my point should be pretty clear. We like government spending that benefits us and/or our loved ones and/or the causes that are dear to us. We dislike government spending that does not benefit us (and/or loved ones)--or that goes for causes that we disapprove of.
So what do we do? We engage our imaginations (what if we were in the shoes of someone else?). We summon our compassion, employ it, give it a full-time job.
And, sure, we try to curtail/prevent budgetary waste (but remember: one man's waste can be another man's salvation). We recognize the fragility and evanescence of human life. We are grateful for the benefits we enjoy, the improbable good fortune that brought us to this place at this time.
And, thinking all of this, how can we be anything but humble--deeply, deeply humble?