Saturday, November 08, 2008

Sacrifice and Responsibility  

I voted for Barack Obama; despite my long-standing desire to see John McCain become president, I didn't agree with his choice of Sarah Palin as she does not reflect my values. But I don't agree with Obama on everything either, of course, and there has been a fair amount of back and forth on The Edge mailing lists on what's good and bad about Obama's views.

But sometimes it isn't the politician's proposals that are scary; it is what the people who are allied with them believe. Recently I came across this commentary by someone more sympathetic to Obama's views than I am:

Obama raises a long-neglected concept: sacrifice

At some point, higher taxes are inevitable to bring the deficit back in line, and Obama’s plan to limit the increases to the rich aren’t likely to be enough. That is the sort of sacrifice we must make to resolve the crisis. The economy is too precarious to endure tax increases to stabilize our finances right now, and some of the ambitious programs outlined on the campaign trail will have to be sacrificed to fiscal prudence.

We must make sacrifices at the personal level, too, by reducing our use of credit and curtailing our spending, building our savings so that we are better prepared. This is a crisis spawned, in large part, by our own delusion. We wanted to believe in ever-rising stocks, in a shop-till-the-terrorists-are-defeated foreign policy and homes that were worth whatever our mortgage broker told us.

For eight years, our government borrowed to pay for wars, tax cuts and prescription drugs, while we borrowed to pay for HDTVs, iPhones and Xboxes. Buy now, pay later wasn’t just a sales pitch, it was fiscal policy. Later is now. To fix our economy we first must change our views of debt and savings.

That will take sacrifice, the one word from the president-elect’s speech that we must hear before all others. Sacrifice, after all, is the prefix for change.

Now, let me not exaggerate: what Loren Steffy is saying here is not crazy and much of it is very sensible. Even in this snippet, there are many points to agree with that have already been discussed on the Edge mailing list:
  • taxes can't be raised right now because it will damage the economy
  • taxes should be raised when the economy is more healthy so we can balance the budget
  • consumers and the government should learn to pay their own way and not skate on credit

But the attitude of "sacrifice is required" is what I find disturbing - because deep down I don't think he isn't proposing that he make a sacrifice. I seriously doubt he sees himself as one of "the rich" whom he wants to tax, or that he has an HDTV that he paid for on credit. Instead he's proposing that others make sacrifices he thinks they ought to to make the economy more healthy. As one commenter to the article said:

I agree that in tough times success often requires sacrifices. But the great concern is who will be selected to make those sacrifices, and if it isn't voluntary, is "sacrifice" really the right word? If it is only the wealthy and companies who are volunteered, then that indicates another round of partisan politics. But if ALL Americans are asked to put some skin in the game, then it will be a chance for bonding, healing, and real change.

This is why I think the language of responsibility is so more important than the language of sacrifice. Most of the issues that Steffy raises in the article have been raised by my friends in The Edge. But if both the language of "sacrifice" and the language of "responsibility" led to similar policy recommendations, why should it matter?

The problem is that sacrifice is easy in a political context, because the people who propose sacrifice rarely have to do it. One of my friends was talking about the BART expansion in glowing concerns about the jobs it will create. But who will pay for this? On another occasion I heard my friend talk about the glories of public transportation, and I know they don't have a great deal of income. So in the long run they'll gain more from being able to more quickly get to work than they'll lose in the (very modestly) increased taxes. So it's very easy to justify a sacrifice ... if you don't have any skin in the game. (Full disclosure: I voted for the BART expansion too).

Responsibility, on the other hand, never stops. I had to look at many different propositions on the ballot; none of them will raise California's taxes more than I can pay. From that perspective, I could easily say "we need to sacrifice in taxes to pay for these needed services". But I couldn't look at it that way: I had to look at the graph of the debt load of all the propositions on the ballot, and choose: which of these things can we actually afford? Yes on disaster relief, and, (based on my experiences in Japan, London, and Washington D.C.), yes on more extensive public transportation, which costs money but is AFAIK ultimately an economic lubricant. But no on everything else. Looking at the bond load over the next thirty years, I decided California couldn't afford all of it ... even if I personally was willing to make the "sacrifice".

That's why I prefer the language of responsibility over the language of sacrifice. Sacrifice is easy to make ... it's something you can do to someone else, after all. Responsibility is something you have to take on yourself.

-the Centaur

(1) The Edge is a private group of friends, not to be confused with the Edge Foundation, even though just about everyone on the Edge would find what Edge Foundation discusses as interesting, and vice versa. Interestingly, the Edge Foundation and the Edge appear to have "officially" started at almost exactly the same time, though we didn't know about them and I'm pretty darn sure they didn't know about us.



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