Affordability

In light of recent proposed budget cuts in various countries, I feel compelled to mount a defense of the common sense concept of the government being able to “afford” something:

  • If we can afford to spend billions of dollars on weapons systems we will almost certainly never use, we can afford to have a system where a dedicated tax stream pays for some bare-bones retirement and disability benefits, with no more overhead than it costs to print and mail the checks.
  • If we can afford to endlessly occupy two countries for no apparent reason, surely we can afford to help people get health insurance.
  • If we can summon up $700 billion out of thin air to bail out banks, surely we can afford to fill in the state and local budget gaps that would lead to firing people who provide essential services.
  • If we can afford high-tech laboratories to do scientific research the results of which we will basically give away to corporate interests for nothing, then we can afford humanities instruction, which requires a teacher, a chalkboard, and enough chairs for all the students.
  • Again, if universities can afford to run money-losing athletic programs, then they can afford to provide the minimal research support funds humanities people require — basically time off to focus on research and maybe the occasional plane ticket, since the other resources they need consist of little more than the pre-existing infrastructure of a good library that you’d need for the university anyway.

The pattern is the same again and again and again: the thing that actually costs not too much money is denounced as unaffordable, while the insanely expensive thing is never even questioned. It’s like if I overdrew my checking account and decided I needed to start buying store-brand cereal while never questioning if I can afford that Lexus.

Now, let’s grant that everything I said above is basically true. What would be the reaction if you said this to a politician? At best, you’d get patronized; at worst, you’d just get an icy stare. It’s just like if you point out contradictions in the Bible to a fundamentalist — they’re not going to admit you’re right, because it was never really about the “literal” meaning of the Bible in the first place, it was about some other fight where the authentic truthiness that comes along with adhering “literally” to the Bible seemed like a good method. Similarly, the use of “affordability” as a criteria isn’t literally about affordability, it’s about using rhetorical means to (a) mislead people about the role of government in a modern economy and (b) foreclose certain options by a spurious appeal to common sense.

Both (a) and (b) are served by making people think that the government’s balance sheet is like a household’s — and interestingly, the people who make such appeals are also often the people who are constantly staking a claim to understand “family values” better than their opponents. Engaging with the rhetoric as though it were intended literally simply reinforces the effect of the rhetoric, just as claiming that the Bible can’t and shouldn’t be taken literally shows that you’re a wishy-washy liberal who doesn’t really care about Christianity. These ideological constructions are traps, not arguments — and they’re designed to look like arguments in part because that’s what’s most likely to draw liberals into the trap.

That being said, I don’t know what the solution is.

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17 Responses to “Affordability”

  1. Hill Says:

    The defense budget is the elephant in the room for any discussion of the budget, in my opinion. Every discussion about domestic spending implicitly begins with “let’s pretend for the purposes of argument that we don’t spend one trillion dollars a year on the military.” Everything else pales in comparison.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It really is like trying to balance your household budget if you first take your heroin habit off the table.

  3. BB Says:

    Amen. This needs to become a constant message from everybody on the left. As I see it, there’s two very different issues here: (1) priorities – we clearly favor military spending to infrastructure, and that’s a huge problem for anybody who wants functioning sewers in ten years. We should prioritize things that would increase the quality of life of the majority of Americans. (2) monetary theory – Americans think the federal government can run out of money, which is patently ridiculous because we have our own sovereign currency (unlike Greece, for example). The problem with this is that Americans then keep count of the “debt,” which is a dumb metric because it doesn’t matter how much debt there is, because it is denominated in dollars, which the Fed makes out of thin air. The political result is that we accept a useless and politically constraining narrative (“we’re in debt”) when we should feel free – and compelled! – to create and spend serious cash right now. We should be spending loads of money on infrastructure: we have millions of out-of-work construction laborers, perfectly usable but unused machinery, and huge infrastructure projects begging to begin. It’s a no-brainer, especially since we can print money to pay these people without consequences (until the economy picks up, and then we have to worry about inflation).
    I think we need to release ourselves from the narrative of debt, focusing on our potential instead (“we are sitting on our hands, let’s get out there and fix this country, etc.”) that will help to reframe the priorities conversation.

  4. Craig Says:

    “If we can afford high-tech laboratories to do scientific research the results of which we will basically give away to corporate interests for nothing, then we can afford humanities instruction, which requires a teacher, a chalkboard, and enough chairs for all the students.”

    Hah. How ambitious.

  5. Mikhail Emelianov Says:

    For anyone thinking that having enough chairs for all the students might be a silly exaggeration, thinks again. I teaching in a room that only fits about 20 desk with 26 students signed up for the class – thanks god they never all show up to class!

    More chairs to the people!

  6. Daniel Kuehn Says:

    I generally agree, but Hill there’s one elephant in the room that is bigger than the military in these discussions – the growth of Medicare costs. That’s what really overshadows all these debates. That’s not to say I think Medicare is something to throw overboard, but our affordability crisis is a medium-to-long-term affordability crisis, and by far the biggest culprit is Medicare. Like Adam said – we can’t just ignore that because it violates our sensibilities or preconceived notions.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I don’t understand your use of “like Adam said” in the last sentence, Daniel.

  8. Daniel Kuehn Says:

    When you wrote: “It’s just like if you point out contradictions in the Bible to a fundamentalist — they’re not going to admit you’re right, because it was never really about the “literal” meaning of the Bible in the first place, it was about some other fight where the authentic truthiness that comes along with adhering “literally” to the Bible seemed like a good method.” I thought that was an excellent comparison for how some people approach the budget. I agree with your post – I would just add Medicare in response to Hill’s comment, and I just think that there are a lot of people out there – like the fundamentalists you point out – that simply don’t want to hear that projected costs for Medicare represent a problem, and that choices about things like Medicaid are discursively constrained because of the shadow cast by Medicare costs.

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I see the connection better now. It is true that we have to recognize that we’re working within constraints, though I don’t think “affordability” is the proper framework — especially when someone just throws out one program in isolation and says we can’t afford it. We can’t afford to have Medicare costs skyrocket and spend more on defense than the next 10 countries combined and cut taxes every chance we get, for instance. The conversation can’t be about whether something in isolation is “too expensive,” it has to be about priorities.

    And the trend lines aren’t immutable — there are a lot of experimental cost-control measures in the health care reform bill, or we could take more direct control by having a true national health care system. But we are told, of course, that we “can’t afford” either of those things, again in complete isolation from anything.

  10. dbarber Says:

    I saw Zizek speak the other day, and this was one of his points. He said that to think, today, we need to address the fact that, on one hand, everything is possible — you want to take a vacation on the moon, soon you can, you want to download your being for eternity, you can. But when it comes to something like “keeping a little bit of our health care,” well, “no, that’s just impossible.”

  11. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Yeah, it’s amazing — the world as a whole, and particularly the US, has generated an amount of material wealth that is unprecedented in the history of humanity, and yet when we talk about meeting basic human needs, it’s somehow this huge obstacle.

  12. Hill Says:

    Yeah… might be better to say Medicare is the friendly elephant and the defense budget is a crazed bengal tiger.

  13. What We Can Afford | Socialism and… Says:

    [...] wanted to note this post by Adam Kotsko about the climate of austerity cuts and the dubious justifications employed by governmen…, especially in the light of the devastating budget cuts on education in the UK (I mean, surely the [...]

  14. John Bloomberg-Rissman Says:

    I agree with everything you say, but, as an academic librarian, I just want to point out that “the pre-existing infrastructure of a good library that you’d need for the university anyway” takes funds to **continue** to exist, something academic administrators and politicians have as hard a time hearing as the stuff you itemize. So please spread the word that libraries need material love, too! Thanks.

  15. Shiva Shetty Says:

    Well said.

  16. Ken Surin Says:

    Steve Bell, the Guardian’s political cartoonist, has a brilliant depiction of the new UK budget cuts at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cartoon/2010/oct/21/steve-bell-comprehensive-spending-review


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