The man I succeeded in public office liked to say, “Figures lie and liars figure.” I won’t speak about liars but figures can be slippery. After 8 years of grappling with a county budget, I gained a healthy understanding that numbers have a plasticity. Many assumptions are built into a budget’s equation. The result can seem more a guesstimate than an estimate.
In an earlier blog I observed that government accounting should look more like kitchen table accounting, simpler and more honest. One of the budget officers I was privileged to work with replied. Now retired, she agreed with me. I was buoyed to her remarks. But others chimed in of a different persuasion.
Please understand, I make no claim to have a deep understanding of economics. I’m a liberal arts wonk. Nonetheless, given my past government experience, I will avow economics isn’t a science. It’s more flexible in its “truths” than biology, for example. No single fixed theory holds economists in thrall the way Albert Einstein’s theories do for scientists. Economics roils with a multiplicity of views, ranging from Milton Freeman’s free market theory to Karl Marx’s socialism.
My mention of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) garnered interest among some readers. MMT is an idea from the 1940’s. It posits a government can plunge itself into debt without suffering ill effects as long as interest rates remain low. All it has to do to cover a deficit is print more money. Some proponents of universal healthcare, a free university education for everyone and other goodies have revived this theory to explain how everyone in America, including illegal immigrants, can get a free lunch.
I admit, I’ve yet to master that logic. Most social programs tend to suck up money rather than generate revenue the way rebuilding the infrastructure would do. Without revenue to offset obligations, our debts could balloon, choking off investments and savings. One economist projects if we walk down the MMT road, we will have a serious fiscal imbalance by 2043. (“Economy: Do deficits still matter?” The Week, March 1, 2019, pg. 34.) Others remain sanguine. When that happens, they assure us, the government will cut spending and raise taxes until balance is restored. And for me, that strategy is the fatal flaw.
I’ve lived to serve in a government where drastic cuts took place. I’ve seen the havoc it reaps on the lives of individuals who had grown dependent on public to services, some of them needing lifesaving support. To tell an indigent mother the government can no longer provide insulin for her diabetic son is an experience I would never again wish to repeat.
Let politicians in Washington D. C. have their press conferences and perform their theater. I have served on the front lines of their decisions and I do not take talk of budget cuts lightly. Officials whose idealism allows them to make wild promises are an impediment to the possibility of real solutions. Those who thirst for revolution seem to give little thought to the collateral damage they cause even if they succeed.
Building consent is hard, slow work. Pointing out villains is more satisfying. But that temporary fire provides little warmth and usually ends in a Pyrrhic victory. In a war, a bullet may stop a human heart but won’t change it. The villains who remain stand unconvinced and unbowed. True victory requires, not the flash of lightning, but endurance and persuasion.
I make no apologies for being wary of ambitious leaders of any stripe. I am especially wary of those who make promises far beyond what the country can sustain through its industry.