Saturday, August 13, 2011

The joy of shared public goods

G and I were walking along the Hudson river last night, in Battery Park and Hudson River Park. It was just beautiful. The design is remarkable- railings, brickwork, stone, beautiful local grasses and trees, places to sit, and views out on the water. This is the kind of social spending - on public goods which can be accessed or used by everybody - which should not be cut, but increased as society gets richer. National parks, libraries, road systems, open air concerts, summer festivals. It doesn't have to be purely governmental spending, either, as the Central Park Conservancy or the Business Improvement Districts which spend money on streetscapes in New York show. National Defense and law and order are also public goods in a broader sense.

The problem is most governmental spending is increasingly direct transfers to specific individuals - redistribution or welfare spending or pensions. These are generally private goods, consumed by their recipients alone.

And I think that is why government spending and tax has become increasingly controversial in the US. You may have social objectives for the spending, to be sure, like limiting poverty among the elderly. But the universal nature of social security or Medicare mean much of the spending is a direct transfer to well-off individuals.

There is also an increasing public perception that much public money is used to benefit the special interests in Washington, whether big corporations, banks, or teachers' unions. It is not spending for the common good. ( I also talked about this here.)

So part of the tea party rage is of course a matter of arithmetic - the size and upward trend of the deficits. But I think there is a much broader and deeper problem with the legitimacy of government taxation and spending. To many, tax looks more like confiscation, forcibly exacted to benefit others and to serve ends which are not your own.

Tax has lost touch with the common good. And I see that as a real problem, because I think many things in the federal budget should be increased. Cancer or energy research, for example. NASA. NOAA. But everything could be degraded by a general fratricidal fight over overall taxation and spend levels, and the size of the government.

We need instead a better debate about what government spending should do. The progressive left, in using government as a tool for their social objectives or distributional goals, is going to end up squeezing or destroying spending on the common good and public resources which benefit everybody. Welfare spending is going to delegitimize spending on public goods in general. We have beautiful parks in New York. But we increasingly need private money and local hypothecated taxes on people within the immediate area of a few blocks to make them work.

Yes, the tea party may need to be more flexible on taxes. But progressive social spending has also reached the limits of its legitimacy. A lot of people do not want to be taxed to support progressive goals. Government cannot be a device to transfer money from struggling working age familiies to the increasingly wealthy elderly, for one thing

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