Friday, February 27, 2009

About Who Gets The Cheque

Politics is a lot like dating. If you made the invitation, if you pick up the tab, s/he thinks s/he's something special; you split it, it's equality; s/he gets it and the world ends. If s/he made it, if s/he picks up the tab, you're chuffed; you split it, it's OK; if you get stuck with it, s/he's a loser you need to drop quickly.

Part of the problem with the stimulus package is that the price tag borders on the unimaginable. Plenty of critics have complained about waste, irrelevant projects and "pork," but Jonah Goldberg seems to have hit the conservative nail on the head: he just doesn't want to pay the bill.
That is, by far, my driving attitude in all of this. I just don't want to pay for it. It's not that I don't want government to do nice things for deserving people in certain circumstances. It's not necessarily that I'm hostile to this group of beneficiaries or that (though I am in fact hostile to some). It's that I think most of Obama's ideas will not work, will be a waste of money and will hurt the economy. And, flatly, I don't want to pay for it.

The difficulty with promoting any public expenditure is that, outside certain universal programmes, it doesn't have the same benefit for everyone. Small-farm subsidies do nothing for urban city dwellers on their face, nor does public transport for the farmers. Programmes for the elderly don't help children directly, and public education does little for seniors. Society as a whole, however, is improved by all those programmes, and more often than not targeting public resources to specific groups with specific needs has benefits far beyond those immediately targeted.

The problem, however, is persuading people that public funds for other people is beneficial for everyone - including themselves. Part of the outrage at the claims Congressman Boehner made about rail projects was at the idea of rich Angelenos getting the fast track to Vegas to go gamble and party. Part of the problem with the gang rehabilitation tattoo-removal programme was about worthless punks and potentially-violent Goths getting all those tribal symbols taken off so they could be just like everyone else again. The list may well be endless given the preconceptions involved.

Identification is at the core of the reactions: with the people who don't get the funds allocated for those programmes, and of the people who the critics imply would. Rich people tired of driving, anti-business tree-huggers, and worthless kids not punished for turning their skins into galleries of "art." That none of the fingers pointed in this way point to actual targets is irrelevant: the picture painted fits with righteous Xtian Conservative views of the decadence of society. And of course good people don't want to reward the decadent, the lazy, or the weak.

So the RWNM makes noise about practical programmes that will help society in terms that make the recipients of the aid look like the less desirable segments of society. By doing so, not only do they make the stimulus look like waste, they make it look like waste deliberately delivered to the least meritorious among us: those that already have everything, and those that have presumably squandered whatever they had through their own (presumed) stupidity.

Thus we get back to the dinner cheque. If you take him/her out once, that's nice of you. If s/he never pays the bill, that's despicable, and a sign that you should find someone else to spend your time with and lavish your attentions upon. The Conservatives want to paint every item in the stimulus as that sort of dinner date, where the folks getting help are the same ones that never pay the bill. It's not only wasteful by their reasoning, it encourages further waste in the future by coddling the worst of us who need to learn discipline - discipline they assume they already have. It's no wonder they don't want to pay for it.

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