Think about How

Allan Bevere started some discussion with his post, It’s Fiscal “Cancer” but What Sage Is It?. One interesting thing I notice about discussions of reducing the deficit is that we tend to have certain spending programs that must not be reduced, and those differ depending on our other political positions.

This is not surprising, of course, but it does make for a problem: One deficit hawk is not like another. For example, deficit hawks on the left would like to substantially reduce military spending, while those on the right look to social programs. Others tend to emphasize eliminating government waste, without looking at just how much waste there is to eliminate, and how it could be eliminated.

In the health care debate, for example, both sides suggested reducing waste as a way to reduce costs, but as is typical in political programs, the savings are counted before they’re actually incurred, and inevitably we’ll find that those savings are much smaller than anyone projected, if there even are any savings at all.

That method–counting your savings before they occur–relates directly to the problem I think lies at the heart of our continuing fiscal problems. We the voters, and because of us our politicians, like to speak in terms of what we want, but not to spend time on really looking at how we can get it, and whether the how is actually going to work.

Even the way proposed laws are labeled and sold to the public reflects this problem. What the title says a bill will due and what the proposed law actually accomplishes may be very different. Savings or spending are stating over varying periods of time to make it appear that more is being accomplished. The titles are written in order to make it appear that great things will happen, but people often don’t know about how long it takes for certain portions of the bill to take effect, or precisely how they will accomplish what the title (or summary) states.

I think this applies to our problems with government and deficit spending in many ways. We try to hand things out without discussing how they will be produced. In the health care debate this starts with the idea of an open-ended access to health care in general. Just how much health care is supposed to be a natural right? I personally think we need to create more access, but access to what? We don’t really want people turned away from the emergency room for lack of money, but how should we prevent it? Who should pay? How should they pay? You see, with every new innovation there’s more health care that might be something we must provide for everyone.

Social Security and Medicare have become almost sacred in the public’s mind. But it might be that very attitude that destroys those programs. Why? Because we are asked to keep the retirement age the same while people live longer and longer. We want to be able to retire at 62 or 65, we want to have the benefits keep up with inflation, but the question is just how one is to pay for such things when there are more and more people living on Social Security. Since I’m in my 50s, I understand how people can want the retirement age to stay the same, but at the same time, I can see that this can’t go on indefinitely.

As an aside, it’s been particularly interesting to see fierce defenses of Medicare by Republicans while opposing similar programs for the population in general. What, precisely, makes Medicare a sacred right while health care for everyone else is not so important?

But to turn to the other side, we have defense spending. For many conservatives defense spending is largely untouchable, except for the ever-present desire to reduce waste. But waste is not so easy to reduce in the government. Here again we have to ask “How?” How will we carry out our necessary defense activities in a world with terrorism? If we continue to make more and more expensive military equipment and at the same time try to have as much of it as we had before, we’ll inevitably run into a similar problem as we have with Social Security. It is much more expensive to equip a military unit today than it was a hundred years ago, and as equipment gets more complex, that’s only going to get worse.

So we again have to ask how. How will we carry out our defense? What level of security can we afford? What will the side-effects be? What are we asking of our military personnel when we expect them to do more worldwide and then we can’t keep them equipped as they need?

Often politicians approach this subject as though one cannot reduce defense expenditures because, well, it’s defense, an important function of government. But I would suggest that a cost/benefit analysis on all defense projects would be valuable, just as it would be on domestic projects.

And there I would turn to law enforcement. Again, we often think that we cannot economize on law enforcement, and in some ways I agree. But can we consider the way in which we fight the drug war or the war on terror on the domestic front and ask again whether we’re spending our money effectively? Have we made all those overlapping federal agencies actually work efficiently together?

My fear on that score is heightened by the government response to Hurricane Katrina, and not to the oil spill in the gulf. It seems that what we expect from these government agencies is what we’re getting. If we had to respond to another terrorist attack, how much might it look like Katrina or the oil spill?

I mean none of this as a slur on our men and women in uniform (I am a veteran myself), nor on our law enforcement officers. I’m talking about what our politicians and government officials ask them to accomplish, the way in which they ask them to do it, and the way they are equipped.

And in the end I talking about us, me and you, and our expectations as related to, or disconnected from, what we’re willing to do to fulfill those expectations. We want to be secure, but not bothered. We want to be cared for, but not taxed. We want to be protected, but not constrained.

Now all of those things have some positive aspects, but we need to look at them carefully. How much can we pay? How many liberties will we limit in order to be secure? Are the goals we ask our government to accomplish possible based on the resources we are willing to provide?

In my private life, I have to ask such questions all the time. If I answer them incorrectly, I’ll run out of money, time, or abilities. It takes longer when it’s the government. But the same thing will ultimately prove true.

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