Stop Treating Americans Like Beggars
By Douglas J. Amy
Millions of Americans are experiencing hard times these days. But instead of devising policies that address our basic problems, many politicians seem satisfied to give people temporary cash handouts, as if we were panhandlers on the street.
Are gasoline prices too high? Don't invest public funds in alternative-energy development that would lessen our dependence on oil. Instead make gasoline a bit cheaper by temporarily lifting the federal gasoline tax, an idea embraced by both Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
Is the middle class being squeezed by high medical expenses and skyrocketing college costs? Many other countries have responded to these issues with policies that guarantee reasonably priced universal health care and make college more affordable for all citizens. In the U.S., the main response so far has been to propose giving the middle class more tax breaks -- an approach favored by many on both sides of the aisle in Congress.
Granted, fashioning policy solutions to our pressing problems is much more difficult than handing out cash. But the origins of this short-sighted approach go much deeper than that.
Cash handouts reflect a basic conservative hostility toward government and public sector solutions to our problems. Republicans would have us believe that Americans are always better off with money in their own pockets, rather than letting the government spend it trying to improve our collective lives.
But this is a delusion. We are often much better off spending our money together through government.
Take the environment. Each American contributes about $30 a year in taxes to fund the Environmental Protection Agency and all its programs, including those addressing air and water pollution, toxic waste and global warming. Would anyone seriously argue that our lives would be improved by refunding that thirty bucks and getting rid of the EPA? We could each buy a few more fluorescent light bulbs, but this would hardly do as much good for the environment as the EPA programs do.
We all know that giving a dollar to a panhandler on the street doesn't do much to help him in the long run. It would be better to contribute to a job-training program or to a free detox facility. The same is true for most of our national problems. We should be pooling our tax dollars and investing in long-term public sector solutions. Government is usually in a better position to solve these problems than we are as individuals.
Consider what we could have done with the $64 billion in small checks that the IRS just sent out to individual Americans in an attempt to soften the economic slowdown. What if we had spent that money on rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure? This would have acted as an economic stimulus over a much longer period of time, and we would have had the added bonus of ending up with safer bridges, better school buildings, cleaner water, and more efficient airports. Right now those IRS checks are mostly just fattening the coffers of Exxon-Mobil and Wal-Mart.
Politicians should stop taking the easy way out and treating Americans like beggars sitting on the corner with their hands out. And we all need to recognize that the best way to tackle many of our nation's problems is not through cutting taxes but by adequately funding the government programs that will effectively address these issues.
The road to the public good often goes through the public sector.