As everyone knows, block of cheese days are the best days. We get a chance to see the best of America’s crackpots, some of whom even make sense. I remember map day the best, but Pluie is also a standout (“That’s the best part – with donations, subsidies, and corporate sponsorship, the whole thing will only cost taxpayers $900 million!”). We do get a marked change in tone from Josh this week as he grapples with his nuclear evacuation card, although his eventual decision to give it back seems pretty much ignored by the president. We also learn about his sister’s death, which I honestly didn’t remember at all. It’s a lead-up to one of, if not the best, West Wing episode, “Noel,” which will probably make me cry again. But for now, since it’s a holiday weekend, we’ll stay on the lighter side.
Since this week’s West Wing episode had several disparate topics, we’re going to briefly discuss the issues that this episode serves to highlight. Press Secretary CJ had the opportunity to hear from Nick Offerman and his band of merry Americans about the truly sad story of Pluie the wolf. Pluie made annual migrations between US and Canadian territory, and Offerman’s group wanted the government to build a “wolves-only highway” to protect Pluie and her kind from the ravages of modern civilization (think highways, cars, pollution.) This all came to the tune of $900 million taxpayer dollars. Of course, CJ thinks it’s ridiculous that the taxpayers should have to spend $900 million dollars on a highway that wolves might not even find in the first place.
What is the government’s financial situation?
The government brings in money through taxes: income taxes, business taxes, taxes on imports/exports, fines, etc. In FY 2015, the government collected $3.25 trillion in revenue. Obviously the government is going to spend this money. Oftentimes, it will spend even more than it brings in. When that happens, the government runs a deficit that year. The government’s total debt is the sum of all of the yearly deficits minus the money the government uses to pay off loans and bonds that come due. But learning about the federal fiscal situation is a story for a different day. Today’s topic is learning why the government needs so much money in the first place.
Where should my money go?
In order to decide where the taxpayer dollar goes, we need to understand government’s fundamental purpose. At a macro level, the government’s job is to provide security, both domestically and internationally. All of us, the taxpayers, pay into a system where we rely on the government to protect us from foreign invaders and countries as well as “bad guys” who seek to cause trouble domestically. In essence, we give the government the power to make war. This is relatively uncontroversial, though the extent of such war is another question. Annually, the federal government spends $598.5 billion on defense spending and $27 billion on law enforcement through the Justice Department. Beyond defense, though, things become a little more nebulous. Does the government have the right or the priority to interfere in the economic system? Should we spend our money on environmental protections, education, and/or the arts?
Well, should we?
In essence, yes. Government is a mechanism to rectify and reduce the inequalities in society, the areas where we might be lacking, and an arena and mechanism to provide public goods. Why? Because nobody else has the ability to act on a large-scale basis. While we might want to wait for market forces to eventually bring about better education, art donors to spend enough to create a renaissance, or big donors to start spending money towards relieving poverty, we can’t afford to wait. The hungry child can’t wait for market forces. The bankrupt orchestra needs funding to continue to spread the arts and music.
But why should we spend our money on arts and music? What’s the point of that?
President Trump wants to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, an organization that has a budget of $149 million. In the name of “draining the swamp” and eliminating waste, he has sought out a budget which increases defense spending while decreasing programs such as these. This isn’t the best plan. First, the amount of money that the National Endowment for the Arts spend won’t make a dent in the deficit or debt – $150 million is hardly comparable to $3.2 trillion. Second, as Ken Burns would say, the arts, music, literature, and culture are what make our country worth defending. These professions add value to our society – helping us understand ourselves, each other, and history. Finally, art and music can have a positive effect and change the lives of lost, poor, or high-risk kids. For example, Gustavo Dudamel founded the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela to help build young lives, create a sense of community, and keep these kids out of gangs and crime.
So what does this all mean for spending?
Obviously, we’re not advocating for reckless spending on projects that lead nowhere, but government spending is not meant to be efficient in the way that business spending should be. The government signals where society should spend its effort, even if it doesn’t seem like an immediate or cost-effective benefit. Sometimes, stupid things do get built. The wolves-only highway is a real thing, the Yellowstone 2 Yukon trail, though I doubt it cost $900 million dollars. But we might also be able to see some benefits: the protection of the wolves and their eventual removal from the Endangered Species Act. Surely we can agree that a mere $149 million is worth the continuing contribution of the arts to our society. After all, that’s only 42 cents per US citizen.
Josh and Donna watch: She’s adorable! But also, apparently, dating a string of men who are not Josh. Booooo.