How Do We Pay For it?

The [Mueller investigation] is doing a public benefit.
They are looking for justice.
Why would you argue about how much it costs?

This is a paraphrase of a comment made on television. It was in response to a complaint from the president that the Mueller investigation was costing too much and (therefore) should be stopped.

This response makes an important statement about public spending and budgeting: is there a dollar amount that is “too much” to spend on providing the common good?

Consider, for example, the several proposals that have shared the headlines recently and in the last election season. There is “healthcare for all” and “free college tuition”, but also “fix the damn roads”, “upgrade K-12 education”, wars in Iraq / Syria / Iran / Afghanistan, threats of intervention into Venezuela, continuing costs of Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, and more.

And there are the significant tax expenditures (rate reductions, credits, benefits, deductions) of the tax changes that went into effect in 2018.

As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said on 60 Minutes – we don’t ask who’s going to pay or how we’re going to pay when we propose a “Space Force“. But other proposals, especially those that will benefit the public, are challenged immediately as too expensive or unaffordable.

I’ve long argued that “how are we going to pay for it?” is the last question to ask, not the first.

It’s the question to ask after you’ve decided that a public need exists, that a solution has been identified, and that the solution will produce significant public benefit at a tolerable public impact.

In short – is this a good thing to do?

If the answer is “Yes”, then let’s find a way to pay for it, to cover the costs. Because, if it’s a good thing to do, if it solves an intolerable problem, then we should do it. Not because we can afford it, but because we need it.

Because we can’t afford to not do it.

Now this doesn’t mean that we pay ridiculous or predatory prices or costs, that we ignore reasonableness when considering the cost and the payments. We still have to manage our money wisely. But managing our money doesn’t mean doing without. It means spending it on what is needed – on the common good – and not spending it on what is extraneous or optional or wasteful or not in the public interest.