Friday, July 29, 2011

Grow up! (a message to Congress, the President, and all the rest of us too)

The other day the mail brought an advertisement for something I desperately need (or so the ad suggested, though I can no longer remember what it was). If I ordered it right now, the ad said, I would save a hefty percentage off the usual price. In vain I searched the flyer for the price. None was listed - not the total, not my monthly payment. I was apparently supposed to place my faith in the kindly marketers and order it anyway.

I guess I should be used to this sort of marketing. After all, that's how our federal government does business. Shall we (a) fight a war in Iraq? (b) add a war in Afghanistan? (c) subsidize medical care for seniors and the poor? (d) rescue failed financial institutions? (e) subsidize growers of corn and soybeans? (f) fund interstate highways?

Yes! we've said, without ever bothering to consider the price of our purchases. Sometimes that's because we've been given no figures. Sometimes it's because the figures are completely off (consider, for example, the Iraq War, which turned out to cost over 50 times more than the Bush administration's original projections).

As we've ordered more and more stuff, we've been setting aside less and less money. And now that the bill has arrived, we're mad.

We must refuse to pay the bill! say some (which is what is meant by not raising the debt ceiling: see this fine analysis by Fareed Zakaria). Right - try that with your personal finances and see how long you keep a good credit rating.

We must stop ordering all this stuff! say others. Well, yes, unless we have a workable plan to pay for it - but do we really want to get rid of the military, reduce over half of our seniors to poverty, and allow our roads and bridges to crumble? Go to the NY Times's Budget Puzzle and see which cuts you'd be willing to make - and how your cuts would affect the deficit.

We must pay for what we get! say still others. That's the philosophy I learned from my parents, who lived through the Great Depression and two world wars. When America decided to fight in World War II, income taxes zoomed. In 1940 the average salary was $1299 (less than it had been a decade before) and the federal tax rate for the average worker was 4%. In 1941, the year Pearl Harbor was attacked, the average worker's tax rate rose to 10%. In 1942-43, it went to 19%, and in 1944-45, the two final years of the war, it was a stunning 23%. Americans of that generation used the word sacrifice a lot.

By contrast, in 2003, the year we attacked Baghdad, the average worker's tax rate was about 13%. In that year, President Bush lowered taxes for the second time.

Well, we had a good ride, buying more and paying less until we crashed into the recession. And now that the bills are due, we just don't know what to do.

Maybe it's time to grow up. If we've already bought it, we should pay for it. If we want it in the future, we'd better save up so we can afford it. If we need it right now and don't have the money, we must sacrifice.

Sacrifice means downsizing. It means going without things we'd really like to have. It may mean going without some things we genuinely need, so that we can get other things that seem even more important.

Instead of being willing to sacrifice, though, we tell our pollsters that we want all our social services to continue, but we want our taxes to be lowered. So our politicians, who want more than anything else to be elected, do what we ask.

We are about to learn what happens to a paedocracy: a government run by children.


Davidr said...

OK. Not too bad except for all the military images that were used in the past to motivate people. Bush used "war on terror" to scare us into accepting the big spending.

How about finding some "conflict neutral" images to tell the story AND motivate us to sacrifice, as Jimmy Carter told us.

LaVonne Neff said...

Davidr, I lean toward pacificsm myself, and I certainly believe the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are ill advised. But that's not my point. My point is, if we're going to spend for anything big, we're going to have to make sacrifices. Our ancestors knew this. We seem not to. Maybe we wouldn't get into wars so easily if we considered exactly how much of our personal income would be required to support them, and their consequences.