Jan 19, 2011
One of the problems with the budget debate is that so many people behave as if fiscal responsibility were an end in itself. It isn’t, of course. The point of fiscal responsibility is to make sure the government can do what we want it to do at a cost we can afford.
But what do we want government to do?
Well, that’s the question. And one of the starkest, most vivid (and funniest) expressions of that question comes from, of all places, a sitcom: Parks and Recreation, about life in the city government of the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. Given what’s going on in the real world, it takes a certain amount of daring for a show to build a cliffhanger episode over a budget crisis and government shutdown – particularly for a show that’s had low ratings to start with. But considering the budget confrontations we’re likely to see in Washington this year, that certainly makes Parks and Recreation timely.
One of the running conflicts is between Leslie Knope, the almost disturbingly enthusiastic deputy director, and her mustachioed boss, Ron Swanson.
While the show plays this for comedy, there’s a real philosophical difference between the two characters. Leslie believes in her work and the idea of government as a force for good: her highest ambition is to turn an abandoned lot into a public park. Ron is a libertarian who believes the government should do as little as possible, and if possible, be privatized and run by Chuck-e-Cheese. He’s built his office around this principle:
The clash between the two of them seems mirrored throughout the Pawnee government, which gridlocks into a financial crisis. The state auditors sent in to fix Pawnee’s budget problems have their own unhelpful act going on: one enthusiastically says “Yes” to everything; the other walks it back and says “We can’t afford it.”
A little extreme? Sure. Painfully familiar? Definitely. But it’s a fundamental argument and it does go to the choices we’re going to need to make. Lean times force you to set priorities. If you can’t afford everything, the question then is: What’s most important?
The sad fact is that the federal budget can’t go on the way it has. The deficit we’re running now is huge, but unavoidable, due to the state of the economy. But in the long run, all federal budget agencies and most outside experts use the same word to describe the fiscal future: unsustainable. The rising costs of health care and an aging population are going to break the budget unless we change course.
Deciding on which course to take, however, is a matter of choices. The mistake that many people make is thinking that fiscal responsibility is all about becoming Ron Swanson, positively giddy over the prospect of “slash and burn” and a government shutdown. Or, alternatively, that it’s all about fighting any cuts or tax increases, no matter what the reasons might be. But that’s really not true. The Committee on the Fiscal Future came up with four different paths that could put the nation on a sound fiscal course. There’s a big government approach, a small government approach, and two paths in between (one that makes preserving programs for seniors a priority, and the other focused on making investments in education and the environment). In the last few months, there have been new proposals from a wide range of groups, some conservative, some liberal, some bipartisan (including the president’s fiscal commission). If nothing else, they prove that there are ways of solving our budget problems no matter what your political leanings are.
People advocating for fiscal responsibility often talk about the hard choices we’ll have to face. They are right: the decisions ahead are not easy. But they’ll be easier to make, if each of us first thinks about what we believe is most important for our government to do.
Once we’ve decided that, we’ll be able to rise to the occasion, much as the hyperactive Leslie Knope does during her government shutdown: juggling resources, cobbling together programs, trying her best to get the important things done, no matter what the obstacles.
Because the one thing we can’t do is refuse to choose. The fiscal crisis in fictional Pawnee came about because the City Council gridlocked on what to do. That kind of thinking just makes things worse: if you don’t choose between tough options now, you may be forced to choose between terrible options later.