Escape your life for a little while — come play in mine.

The spending bill was not about growing the economy, it was about growing government

Posted by Lissa on February 6, 2009

Good words from Goldberg:

The stimulus bill was designed to give Democrats maximum maneuvering room. It would increase non-defense discretionary spending by more than 80 percent in a single year, in a single bill! Moving forward, they could grow government by smaller percentages while seeming to be responsible budget balancers. By putting chips on every square of social spending, they could let it ride for years to come.

Of course, this was more than a budgetary ploy. Democrats had good reason to believe that this was their moment. For the first time in a generation, they truly own the political commanding heights. They’ve won a string of elections, including the momentous presidential contest in which their candidate never really ran to the center the way Democrats normally do. He stayed on the liberal left all the way through Election Day, so liberals figured voters knew what they were getting with Obama. Indeed, that’s why the president keeps saying “I won,” as if that settles the issue. Funny how that argument didn’t work for the last president when he tried to reform Social Security.

Moreover, many actually believed Obama’s own hype. This was the moment for this, that and the other thing. This was the time when we, as Americans, were going to have our cake and eat it too. Future generations were going to look back and remember how Republicans and Democrats, cats and dogs, Klingons and Romulans came together and marched to the sunny uplands of history, where shopping carts have no wobbly wheels; airplane food is free, delicious, and filling; and we get all of our energy from 100 percent renewable Loch Ness Monster poop.

Gee, it’d be nice if everyone had a college education, and if government would pay for it so I could knock off that nasty college debt I’m carrying, and children should NEVER go hungry or be without health insurance, and government spending is a great way to fix all that.  Right?

Wrong.  I no longer think it is moral to forcibly extract money from other people to support the social causes *I* believe in.  While I hate the idea of any child being without health insurance, I’m just not that sympathetic to families that COULD afford health insurance, but choose not to.

“But Lissa,” you say, “it’s not the KIDS’ fault if their parents are irresponsible and buy three cars instead of health insurance.  Why would you want little Mary Anne to suffer for her parents’ mistakes?”

“Because,” say I, “what about the parents of little Bobby down the street?  They have the same income and situation as Mary Anne’s parents, but the mom takes the bus to work every day so that they CAN afford health insurance.  What you’re saying is that Bobby’s parents should subsidize the mistakes of Mary Anne’s parents.  How is that right?”

And wouldn’t it then be perfectly logical for Bobby’s parents to stop scrimping for health insurance and buy that second car?  After all, it worked for Mary Anne’s family.  And now suddenly instead of it being just one family in the neighborhood that “needs” subsidized health care, you’ve got five.  Or more.

It’s easy to look at a ginormous government spending program and think that each and every one of its causes is morally good.  I certainly don’t, but I could make an emotional argument for each one of them.  (“Do you WANT children to starve?  Do you think everyone has been as lucky as you are, to have educated, married parents and a college degree?  Do you even know what it’s like to grow up in a ghetto thinking that the entire world is against you and you have no opportunities?  How can you hold a five-year-old accountable for the mistakes of her parents, over whom she has no control?  How can you be so heartless?” etc. etc.)  It’s harder to see that each government spending program is extracting money from citizens across the land who likely would have put that money to better, more efficient uses.

As PJ O’Rourke writes in Eat the Rich:

Opportunity costs fool people because they’re unseen.  When we observe money being spent, we’re impressed.  We gasp with awe at the huge new Federal Wheat Council headquarters in Washington, D.C.  We don’t admire the vast schools of squid feeding in our nation’s wheat fields — because they aren’t there.  The main cost of government expenditure is not taxes, inflation, or interest on the national debt.  The main cost is opportunity.

Sweden is a case in point.  The Swedes like what their government does.  They look around Sweden and see handsome government buildings, nice government programs, and generous government benefits.  What they look around and don’t see is what Sweden might have been if all that money had been invested in businesses and industries. From 1968 to 1969, before Sweden got carried away with its socialism, the country’s per-capita gross domestic product grew by 5.7 percent.  What if the Swedes had kept that up, or for the sake of mathematical simplicity, improved it a bit?  As organized and self-disciplined as the Swedes are, why not?  What if the Swedish per-capital GDP had been growing by 6 percent annually for the past thirty years?  Swedes, who are now about 27 percent poorer than Americans, would be more than three times as wealthy as we are.  They’d havea per-capita GDP of more than $66,000.  They’d be richer than the people of any country have ever been.

(If you haven’t yet read that book, you really, really should.)

I’d hate for someone to accuse me of being heartless because I don’t want the government to support the causes it claims to fund with the stimulus bill.  It is not heartless to say that the government does most things poorly and inefficiently, when it gets anything done at all, and that I resent it sucking up my money to fritter away in administrative costs.  It is not heartless to say that there is no such thing as a “temporary” government fix to any problem and that I want government to keep its big fat annoying nose the hell out of my home and mostly out of my pocketbook. 

Wishful thinking, I know . . .

P.S.  As you can probably tell, I am still susceptible to accusations of heartlessness and feelings of guilt.  There’s a panhandler outside of South Station who holds out his Dunkin Donuts cup every day.  I felt less guilty about never giving him money once I discovered that he’s been doing that for at least SEVEN YEARS.  He has no physical deformity and he wears warm and sturdy clothing.  Intellectually, I know there is no reason for me to feel guilt or shame for refusing him charity.

But emotionally, I still found it difficult.  I studiously avoided his eyes every time I walked past.

The solution?  I’m now donating every month to the Boston Food Bank.  At a rough glance, they seem to have an acceptable level of efficiency — my crude calculations guestimated about 87% of their budget went to food distribution/storage — and it’s a worthy cause.  I don’t want people to go hungry, so I chose to help feed them.  (CHOSE.  Choice.  It’s a good thing.)  If the guy at South Station is hungry, he can go over and get something to eat.  I walk by him now and my conscience makes nary a peep.

2 Responses to “The spending bill was not about growing the economy, it was about growing government”

  1. […] by hsoi on February 6, 2009 lookingforlissa has a nice article about the so-called stimulus package. My personal feelings on the matter are very much in line with hers. Thank you Lissa for saving me […]

  2. Mike said

    That’s why time is of the essence! Stopping to consider the implications only leads to Armageddon!

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