What’s the first question you ask about a new product after it has been described to you?
No fair cheating and looking at the title of this post.
If you’re like me and most of the people I know, we ask “OK…does that work?”
That’s question number one, as soon as we know what the thing is purported to do and how it does it.
There is a hierarchy of questions to ask before we invest in a product or service…it goes something like:
- What is it? / What does it do?
- How is it supposed to work? / Does it seem like a good idea?
- Does it work in practice?
- How much does it cost and what is the benefit? / What is the benefit worth to us?
- Are there any other alternatives that might fill the same need and do so at less cost?
- Can we afford the cost?
Everyone gets this concept. Well…most of us do, at any rate. We all interrogate infomercials in our heads, we all question the validity of claims made by salespeople, we all comparison shop and read customer reviews before we buy something or pay for a service. Or at least we try to do it as much as possible – let the buyer beware and make good choices based on the available data.
I bring all of this up because I was outlining the recent Tea Party budget proposal to friends of mine and they had a knee-jerk reaction to it that I think is both rational (yes…it has a firm grounding in common sense as we in America now understand our world) and completely wrong. When I mentioned that the Tea Party wanted to abolish the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Energy, Education, and Homeland Security, as well as privatizing things like the EPA, TSA, IRS and USPS…they immediately said things like “whoa…why would you want to cut the department of education? Don’t we need that? Do they just not care about public education quality?”
This is an understandable reaction. We all want good education and are willing to pay to help fund it (for the most part) – but this reaction is skipping the appropriate hierarchy of questions to be asking about a product or service before we, as a nation, buy it.
So I dared pose the question. My friends were predictably baffled. What does the (federal) department of education do that should pay for? How does it foster better education in theory and does the theory actually work? I don’t think there are more than perhaps 10,000 people in the entire country who know EXACTLY what the department of education does. I am quite certain that some of the things that Education bureaucracy bigwigs do has a positive impact, but when was the last time the government was asked to clarify what their department actually does and make us understand why it is vital to pay for it?
Do you know why we don’t ask these questions? Because taxes are not elective. If we could choose how our tax dollars were spent, it would be incumbent upon us to do the research and conclude that we like the services being provided. Instead, we are paying for all of it. And there’s no way that most of us (myself included) can possibly do the research and know what services are out there that we would like to see continue. The government was too big even in 1880 for us to keep up with all of that, let alone 2012.
What would happen if government departments had to compete for our funding and demonstrate well enough to convince some of us to be their sponsors that they were producing quality work that we wanted to buy? What if our tax rates didn’t change one iota – what if we all had to pay exactly what we do now…but we got to CHOOSE what departments our money went to? To be sure, there would be those who spent unwisely and supported things that didn’t deserve to be supported. You’d have departments of Flower Cross-Breeding studies and departments of video game violence and other inane things…but how much money would those departments get? Exactly how much Americans were willing to pay. What if we let the market decide how our government operated (outside of those functions specifically appointed to the Federal Gov’t by the Constitution – defense, census, etc)?
I think several things would happen within a few years.
- Government spending on special interest projects like the National Endowment for the Arts, Public Broadcasting, Farm Assistance, Energy Speculation, Green Energy, etc would become boutiques, not sprawling bureaucracies with minimal oversight or accountability. The NEA would continue insomuch as passionate lovers of the arts funded it directly.
- Certain spending types would prosper in most seasons – infrastructure (backed by union support and general public interest in good roads, power grids, airports, etc), scientific progress (yes…I think most Americans want to see us continue to lead in scientific discovery), state grants for education, medicaid and medicare…the big things that even hard-line conservatives think we need to work hard to salvage despite our debt today…those things would also have plenty of funding…in fact I bet they’d do better than they do today.
- Interest in the major issues making the headlines would EXPLODE. (this is where this idea is precarious – the media would have even more power to persuade us and change the shape of the country politically)
- People would suddenly be willing to pay taxes! Even poorer families might accept currently untenable proposals that they pay some small pittance to help the country get out of debt. It would be hard, but most poor families aren’t heartless and do give to charity when they can. And if you get to decide what things you’re paying for…which services you think deserve your tax dollars…well now, might not that make you more interested in having a stake in that game?