The Right and Left Mean Different Things When They Talk about Spending Money

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When I first set about to find common ground between left and right in America, I thought I had an easy answer:  money.  We may disagree about abortion or corporate regulation, but certainly we could all agree that rising debt levels pose a danger to society.  Although Republicans characterize Democratic politics as being all about “taxing and spending,” I don’t know anyone who actually believes that throwing money at a problem will fix it. The left believes that it’s possible to spend money wisely, that paying more up front (on medical prevention, on education, on the environment) can save money in the long run. I knew that it wouldn’t be easy for us to agree on what “wise spending” is. I know that conservatives are often suspicious of the effectiveness of new programs (it is, after all, the job of a conservative to put the brakes on). I also know that liberals can be a bit too in love with the promise of new initiatives. But money would save us.

Regardless of which side you’re on, we all know that a government has to make choices of priorities and agree on a budget, which is always a compromise. There is no viable alternative.  If we could focus on whether a program was effective and whether it saved money or cost money over the long haul, maybe it wouldn’t matter so much whether that program originated with Democrats or Republicans. We could have a common language to talk to each other, one that we all recognize and respect. That language would be dollars, which work the same way regardless of whether they’re held by a liberal or a conservative. After all, dollars are facts, which seem to be the most precious of currencies these days.

If we on the left agreed to pursue one of the right’s most strongly advocated goals (reducing debt), then conservatives might be able to admit that both sides have made significant contributions to our current fiscal situation. We could maybe get on with the business of deciding how to spend money wisely for our society. We could talk about priorities and the costs of achieving those priorities. If we agree to boost our military, then let’s pay for it. If we agree that it’s important to strengthen our economic safety net, then let’s do that now and not depend on the next generation to pay for that. Such decisions are certainly tough, but keeping an eye on dollars at least would mean that we are making decisions in an honest way.

I also believed we could be at least a little bit smarter than some of the sound bites that circulate about the federal debt, such as: “My family doesn’t spend more than we take in. Why should the government?” This bit of homespun wisdom ignores a basic difference between microeconomics and macroeconomics (after all, these are two different fields for a reason). The federal government doesn’t behave like a family, nor should it. The fed has the ability to print money (which hopefully your family doesn’t!), and that complicates the equation. Those who advocate a totally balanced budget ignore the ways that a certain amount of national debt is a good thing, that it promotes growth. Virtually every economist would agree that a national balanced budget requirement would be a bad thing for the economy, that it would limit our ability to deal with moment of economic stress. We’re a long way from acting like a truly balanced budget, but some talk as if that should be our goal. Most economists would also agree, however, that our current overexpenditures are not a sign of fiscal health.

Cynicism is tempting here.  “People won’t understand the basic difference between micro- and macro-economics.” (As a teacher, I am committed to the idea that we can indeed learn such things. It’s not that tough.) “You’re not going to find that kind of moral courage in politicians today.” “Once you start a program, you can never stop it.” And so on. But this blog is committed to the idea that the way things are today isn’t the way things have to be. I am not going to declare in advance that we lack courage or intelligence or initiative (in spite of evidence to the contrary). To do so would be self-defeating. I believe there is a way for us to talk to each other; we just need to find it.

Unfortunately, I have grown to believe that dollars are not going to be the currency we need to restore a common foundation for debate. I increasingly believe that the left and the right mean different things when they talk about “spending money.” By saying the same words, it gives the appearance that we are talking about the same thing, but we are not. The words are part of the problem.

By portraying themselves as the sole advocate of fiscal responsibility, the Republicans ignore the times that they act in ways that counter that: the tax cuts under Reagan and Trump, the unfunded Medicare drug benefit under George W. Bush, the consistent advocacy for raising the Pentagon’s budget. When Republicans talk about “spending,” they’re usually talking about social programs. They can talk about cutting back “spending” while simultaneously advocating for raising the Pentagon’s budget, as if the words if the words “money” and “spending” don’t mean the same when they apply to the military as when they apply to entitlements. We don’t treat all dollars the same. Most Republicans appear to be fine with increasing expenditures in areas they support, but they need to own and justify these expenditures and not pretend that they are somehow not “increased spending.”

Although conservatives talk a lot about money, I increasingly believe that reducing expenditures is not a primary goal for contemporary conservatism.  We are having a battle over what feels like an aesthetic preference: do you prefer a smaller government or a larger one? Do you like ‘em big or little?  “Money” often coincides with the big government/small government argument, but it doesn’t always, and we do a disservice by pretending that it does.

I had an “aha” moment listening to a story on the podcast This American Life. The story (“Do You Want a Wakeup Call?” https://www.thisamericanlife.org/459/what-kind-of-country/act-three-0) examined a fiscal crisis in the Colorado Springs government. Rather than increase taxes, the local government decided to make residents pay a la carte for basic services such as having a streetlight. A Colorado Springs official told the story of a citizen who thanked her for the new policy as he paid the bill for his street’s lights. She reminded him that he had just paid more money than he would have if his taxes had been increased, and he said that he didn’t care. He preferred a government that didn’t rely on pooled resources (one of the benefits of a larger government), even if that put him at a financial disadvantage. The fact that he was paying more money wasn’t the important thing.

There will be times in this blog when I focus on how the words that we use can create obstacles to our political understanding. I’m very loosely adapting the central insight of Michael Calvin McGee’s concept of the “ideograph,” which refers to the ways that certain individual words can by themselves make arguments. It’s hard to argue against “freedom,” for instance. By associating something with “freedom,” you’re already making an argument in its favor. It’s similarly hard to advocate for a “terrorist,” so if you can make that label stick, you’ve already carved a rhetorical hole for that person that’s hard to dig out of. Such single words can short-circuit reasoned thinking.

I have come to believe that much of our “money” talk does just that, that it allows us to appear to be discussing one thing when really we are discussing another. The recently adopted federal budget revealed that Republicans are more committed to the idea of cutting taxes than they are to responsible monetary policy. The relative lack of honest discussion about the ramifications of tax cuts (increasing the debt for future citizenry) undercuts the argument that conservatives are more concerned with being good shepherds of taxpayer money. The value placed on a smaller government outweighs the publically expressed value placed on spending money wisely.

And so I’m less hopeful about money being a key term to anchor our debate in an agreed upon reality. We can’t use the Republican emphasis on “fiscal responsibility” as a common goal because the Republicans maintain only a loose, flexible allegiance to wise spending. Money is a factor, certainly, but both sides have shown the ability to lay that factor aside when pursuing more central goals.

In this blog, I’ll try to cut through our language and find a firmer common ground. Next time I’ll articulate what I hope is a better starting place.

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