There is not much question that we live in an era where people want government services, but have little stomach for paying for these same services. I'm no different than anyone on this. When we have a snowstorm, I'm always dismayed that we often have to call to remind them that it sometimes snows a little more with a few hundred extra feet of elevation. It would seem to me that we pay enough taxes for this to happen efficiently. After all when I leave Roanoke County, and drive through Salem, I find that the roads are bare.
Yet snow plows are just the tip of the government services that we expect. As our society has become more complex, we've grown less able to support ourselves when we can't run to the grocery store every few hours. Now we can add gasoline panic to the bread and milk panic when storms show up.
Many of our elder citizens can easily tell us of a time when people were much more self sufficient. They grew most of their own food, had spring water to drink, and didn't have to worry about the electricity going out because they didn't have any. There wasn't any trash to be picked up because they bought very little and wasted even less. Food scraps were fed to the pigs, and even Sears catalogs were recycled in the out houses. Those days are gone for the majority of city dwelling Americans.
We now depend on government to keep our roads open so the intricate supply web that ends in our grocery store or gas station can function. Everything we buy these days is over packaged, often for our own safety so unless the trash is picked up, we will quickly disappear under piles of garbage.
We're also much more at risk from fire since houses are now built well up the slopes of the mountains and often surrounded by woods which in a season like this in Southwest Virginia become very hazardous.
Then of course there is public health which in theory takes care of us in times of epidemics and hopefully helps to get the right kind of vaccines produced and if we're luck in enough volume for those that need the shots to get them.
Of course we need the police to nab all the bad guys, maintain order, and make sure we don't get too far over that all too prevalent 25 mph speed limit that seems to be uniquely well enforced here in our metro area.
The schools serve us all whether we have children or not. Without education, our society would not have doctors, dentists, lawyers, and even more critically writers to point out all the problems of society. Providing us with clean water, making arrangements for our sewage waste, and paving our roads are all government functions that many of us depend upon.
Beyond that we expect help in our retirement, medicare once we retire, protection of our homeland, and a variety of other programs. All of which cost tremendous amounts of money.
On top of all this we expect our representatives to bring home the pork like the $941 million "Bridge to Nowhere" that will connect Alaska's Gravina Island (population less than 50) to Ketchikan (pop. 8,000).
When you throw in paying for the war in Iraq whose price tag is now over $196 Billion dollars, you have to wonder how we've done as well as we have for all these years. You can watch the war dollars be spent at "Cost of War." Of course at some point the debts will come due even if we continue to pay for them with freshly printed money. Today the Washington Post (free registration required) had an interesting article, "Fiscal Policy: Why 'Stupid' Fits."
Here's a fact getting far too little attention: The cost this year alone of the Bush tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 comes to $225 billion. In other words, the revenue lost because of tax cuts going through this year without any congressional action would more than pay the costs of Katrina recovery....
But our current budget policies are built not on honest coherence but on incoherence or, even worse, a dishonest coherence. The president and members of Congress always insist that they are fiscal conservatives who believe in balanced budgets. Yet their actions bear no relationship to their words, and labels such as "conservative" have no connection to their policies. Our federal purse strings are in the hands of fiscal radicals.
I have always laughed at the idea that we could continue cutting taxes without eventually cutting services. Of course our property taxes have gone through the roof to compensate for some cuts, but the reality is that we are funding these services with debt in a ratio that no normal individual or business could survive. The same Post article has this comment.
The crowd running our government is dazed and stupefied by a theory that sees throwing ever-larger sums to the wealthy in the form of tax cuts as so good, right and important that all the ordinary rules of finance and economics can be thrown out the window. If it was already stupid to pursue more tax cuts once the country decided to wage a large war on terrorism, it is supremely stupid to stay on the same course now that Katrina has added to our fiscal burdens and Rita, God help us, threatens to add more.
So I guess we'll spend whatever is "necessary" to help folks recover, but the idea of figuring out how to pay for it appears to have stumped most in Congress. I guess it is even more complex than actually figuring out how to safely evacuate large cities.
Another article I found, "Losing That New Deal Religion," which appeared today in the New York Times (subscription required), shows that most of us are very skeptical about our government these days. We have little confidence in our government's ability to do the right thing.
For those dreaming of another New Deal, the most hopeful finding in the poll was that about 3 in 10 people trust the government to do the right thing most or nearly all of the time - about the same percentage as before Katrina. But that's still a distinct minority. And as the Pew Center notes, it's in "striking contrast" to people's feelings after the Sept. 11 attacks, when 6 in 10 trusted the government.
I'm not sure that I trust any of the failed levels of government in these latest disasters to come up with good plans to spend the money since none of them can seem to understand what all of us know so well. If you decide to make a large purchase or spend a lot money, you need to know how you are going to pay for it before you buy it. It's a normal for most of us to have to cut back in other areas of spending or figure out how to make more money if we have to deal with a large expense.
That's a pretty basic economic lesson that our representatives seem to be ignoring.
We might want everything but very few of us are able to have everything with no strings attached. Our government seems to believe we can do it all without ever worrying about the consequences.
It's too bad it doesn't work that way.