Saving Our Way to Strength

Being thrifty with our money has much to recommend it, but we cannot build national strength by failing to spend money where it is needed. Unfortunately, many Republicans and Libertarians fail to see this, and it has caused a great deal of difficulty. They believe that “The best government is that which governs least”. Catchy, but it would institute poverty and continually aging infrastructure.

Infrastructure has already decayed badly, but what Republicans really want to do is to rid the country of Social Security, Medicare, food assistance, and everything else that’s “unnecessary”. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, they believe that poor people have no one but themselves to blame for not being rich. Dumping all this “nanny state” stuff would at last force them to stand on their own two feet and get to work. A Republican governor said this using almost these exact words this week.

How anyone can believe this crap is quite beyond my comprehension. The argument can be demolished with two observations: (1) Worsening inequality creates more and deeper poverty, which would mean that laziness waxes and wanes; (2) Our record inequality is demonstrably the result of political policies that favor the rich, which would mean that laziness rises with gifts to the rich. These two observable truths negate their entire belief. The two cannot logically coexist.

Ongoing gifts to the rich have left huge chunks of the nation’s wealth in the portfolios of a handful of self-interested multi-billionaires. A few decades ago we stopped being a democracy and instead became a plutocracy when the wealthy gained enough power to control Congress. If this worsening inequality does not reverse course we will in time be in danger of a genuine armed revolution, because we are beginning to look more like pre-revolution France and less like post-revolution America.

This Republican belief that we can starve ourselves to greatness has been proven wrong so many times, so many ways that one wearies of thinking about it. No matter how many times St. Reagan expressed it, money doesn’t “trickle down” when the rich get tax breaks and other goodies of their own choosing. Money bubbles up from the bottom, starting with the poorest.

These government programs Republicans love to hate are the kinds of things that make the more advanced countries of Europe and Asia better places to live than the US. The reason is simple: a base of everyone in the country makes social plans as efficient as they can possibly be. Our private health care plan is dependent on insurance paperwork that takes one of every three dollars and provides absolutely no health care. This is why national plan medical procedures cost half what ours do, as do their medicines. We see too that national bureaus elsewhere are able to control prices, rather than Congress forbidding it.

Then there is the matter of infrastructure, meaning all the physical structures that allow the smooth functioning of the nation.

I live in San Francisco, and I’m very proud of the way the city spends money. For example, a few years ago it became apparent that the city’s sewage infrastructure was aged, some of it a century old. The issue was put to the voters, who voted solidly to begin upgrading, at great expense. Many of our cities experience frequent burst water mains and the like because they haven’t spent the money to modernize. Each failed pipe costs a lot to fix, and fixing it only delays the inevitable cost of replacing the entire system.

It’s like spending on your home. Having a new roof is not nearly as much fun as a couple of weeks in Maui, but if you don’t replace your leaky roof it’s gonna cost a lot more when the drywall and insulation get soaked.

Failing to spend money on national needs is not much different. The most obvious comparison is with the physical infrastructure that has deteriorated so badly that deadly accidents occur on a regular basis. A big bridge plunges to the river in Minneapolis. An old dam is breached in South Carolina. Trains derail all over the place, creating deadly fires, or colliding because the “new” safety features now over twenty years old were never funded. The electric grid is dangerously outdated, and could be hacked or just break down on its own. Air control systems experience failures, sometimes with serious consequences.

The count of badly decayed bridges, roads, and so on, is sky high, and is getting higher every year, and still we do almost nothing about it. We do nothing about it because Congress is controlled by people who don’t seem to understand that, first, a single bad accident is far more expensive than it would have been to fix the problem in the first place. Second, the longer we wait, the more expensive it will be. Delays in infrastructure repair and maintenance also have added costs in lost efficiency that is borne by business. When transportation routes are closed by a collapse the businesses that use them aren’t gonna like it.

In short, you can’t save your way to strength by cutting the budget for everything. Certain members of Congress think we will somehow be able to “save money” by spending nothing on the essential needs of all citizens and the infrastructure. They’re wrong. Tragically wrong.