If your doctor told you that you had to lose 10 pounds, would you cut off your foot? If you didn’t have enough gas in your tank to get to your destination, would you pitch your luggage and force a passenger to get out, or slow your speed to save fuel? If income for your household of four dropped, and you only had 75 percent as much to spend on groceries, would you stop feeding one family member entirely, or reduce portions and substitute ingredients?
These sound like dumb questions, because reasonable people will almost always economize across the board, tighten belts to the point of discomfort, and reduce expenditures as evenly as possible before jettisoning something they value. The not-so-dumb, non-rhetorical question lurking, however, is, “Why doesn’t government do what reasonable people do?” Why, over and over, from the federal to the local level, are citizens told that to cope with hard times, they must choose among the loss of entire programs, mass layoffs or the shutdown of entire facilities or agencies?
Several reasons underlie governments acting in ways families, teams or long-term-oriented organizations never would. They may not be the best reasons, but they are explanations.
Least resistance. All cuts are hard, but there are easy hard cuts and then there are hard hard cuts. The easy way is to slash: Cut workforce, terminate program, shutter facilities. This tactic, borrowed from the corporate world where throwing millions out of work resulted in better short-term quarterlies and big bonuses, often results in no real savings for taxpayers. If the employees, facilities or programs had value, brute chopping simply means less value for less money, sometimes not even proportionately, since overhead costs remain regardless. But slashing, at least on paper, is easier than dissecting.
Cognitive dissonance may play a role. Difficult, unpopular decisions can get over-generalized into a hardened attitude. The wrong lesson gets learned: if making folks unhappy was the right decision once, we should make constituents unhappy all the time. Once decision-makers start equating “unpopular” with “correct,” protest and anger serve to reinforce certainty that program-slashing is righteous, and that protestors are spoiled and uninformed – themes you can hear every day. This upends the ideal of self-government, leading at minimum to a disconnect with citizenry, if not callousness or actual contempt.
Blame-shifting. The “priorities” game also lets government blame the citizens it’s supposed to serve: “The problem is not us, it’s you: you want it all, and don’t want to pay for it.” That meme, called “guilt-tripping” in decades past, would be convincing if, in fact, taxpayers had been paying less and getting more. But the opposite is demonstrably true, as both public-sector expenditures and total compensation packages have outstripped the private sector for some years, notwithstanding the enormous increases at the top rung of the latter.
Distraction. Cutting corners in cost-cutting, finally, begs the question of what taxpayers get for their money. Argument about arts funding, pro or con, serves as convenient cover for the far more enormous expenditures on war, or the soaring growth of a domestic security apparatus. Moving the debate to a choice between cuts to Head Start or NPR shifts the discussion from million-dollar-a-pop drone strikes. Locally, the analogue is annual uproar over programs that are a tiny sliver of tax dollar, masking the far larger sums spent by school districts and municipal governments, often in ways of which most citizens are unaware.
No one disputes needing to defend our country, prevent crime and fight fire, pave streets and teach children. But could we do those for less? Impossible even to have that discussion if sound and fury are diverted to relatively small items, and if citizens who might have the toolkit to scrutinize government spending instead have to spend their time at meetings fighting to keep a neighborhood library or community center. Which, some suspect, is the point.
Cutting expenses, absolutely necessary right now, must be done with finer instruments than a chainsaw. It won’t happen in one budget cycle, because more distributed reductions, achieved by renegotiating contracts or changing a culture of procurement, take a sustained effort over a number of years. Citizens, too, must take self-governance more seriously: paying more attention, voting more and sometimes paying more. But all our hard choices will be fairer and wiser, if we avoid the “easy” way out and draw on the reasonableness that gave us this system in the first place.