The Budget and Us

I’m sitting in a restaurant in Chicopee, MA as I write this. For those of you that don‘t know Chicopee, it’s an old mill town – a factory town built up near a river everywhere where mills used the river to power them.  When I was young, this whole area had factories everywhere that kept the economy going – Spaldings in Chicopee made sporting goods (my parents worked there), National Blank Book in Holyoke made three-ring binders (I worked there briefly), Milton Bradley made toys, Uniroyal made tires, Buxton made wallets, and the list goes on.  As of today, Spaldings is limping along making golf balls, I think. National Blank Book is long gone. Buxton still exists. Milton Bradley has been either bought out or been bought out by Hasbro. I think Uniroyal still makes tires, but they don’t make them here anymore.  Instead, the shell of the factory is left in Chicopee (a relatively poor community), like the shell of National Blank book’s factory is left in Holyoke ( the poorest community around here).  The days of uneducated factory workers making a living for themselves – not a great living but a living nonetheless – are gone. The people are still here, but the factories are gone as is the work. What’s left is what the factories left behind – toxic waste in the soil, either because the people there didn’t know better or because they didn’t care. If Chicopee wants to rebuild or offer up this property to someone new with a factory of their own, it has to do something with this land. Luckily, in one of those ceremonies that only makes the local local paper, there’s an article that says the Uniroyal land is being cleaned by an $800,000 grant (the fourth one) from the government. The U.S. Senator and state politicians who arranged for this grant are here announcing it in a press conference, no doubt proud of their work and what it means for this area.

It’s not a “major” piece of legislation. It’s not a controversial issue. There are no pickets nearby. CNN is not here. FOX is not covering it nationally. Rachel Maddow’s not describing the importance to the history of unions or environmental causes on her show. This grant is the kind of thing that we forget governments do. It’s something that just has to be done and so the people here asked for financial help dealing with it. In this community, $800,000 is simply not laying around in the coffers of the city treasury. The jobs are gone here, and so is the money.   So the state people asked the federal people for some help fixing things in order to get things back to the way they’re supposed to be.

It occurs to me, as I think about it, that this is the kind of thing we have taxes and a budget for. It’s not an “entitlement” that people can supposedly mooch off of. It’s part of the “infrastructure” that Obama says we need to invest in and that people of both parties will disagree about. Mostly, though, it’s just dirt and land in the middle of a community where poor people live.  If we want them to continue to do so, without millions of dollars of medical care, then we need to clean things up.  It’s one of those “pay me now or pay me later” things. We can spend $800,000 now to clean it up or we can spend thousands of dollars in health care for the kids born and raised nearby. We can spend more thousands for special education classes for those same kids who now have some sort of deformity. We can spend money on insurance for the people who have to breathe whatever leaks out of the soil. We can leave the land fallow and never get any more tax revenue out of it, or we can spend the money to fix it. This is probably the better deal.

For some reason the other day, my wife and I were talking about the economy with our kids – the national debt and college costs and jobs and such. We had to explain taxes and why they are such a big deal right and that. This morning, I saw Mitch McConnell on the TV talking about debt and taxes and the theory behind his budget vs. the budget of the President’s team.  As my wife and I contemplate our budget, it occurs to me that budgets are a sign of what’s important to us – a sign of the choices and priorities we have, a sign of the situation we’re in and a sign of what needs to be fixed.  But beyond that, they are a sign of what we need to do.

You pay for that and another bill comes right behind it to pay for this. That was then and this is now.

The question is “what do we spend our money on”? Do we spend money on things that make things better – like this grant – or do we spend money on things that make things worse – bombs that destroy the land the grant seeks to clean up, bombs that make a mess of people’s lives, bodies, and minds.

Does anyone remember the oil wells on fire right after we invaded Iraq? I can’t imagine the cost of cleaning up that mess. But more than that, all the money in the world won’t fix the environment that got worse because of it.  I assume that we’re probably still breathing in the remnants of that man-made natural disaster.  I don’t remember if Iraqis lit the wells on fire or if it was our bombs that started things, but in any case, war destroys the land that it’s fought on. Think of the destruction that 9/11 caused and continues to cause here – and that was only 3 buildings and a field.  If we magnify that to however many bombs we’ve dropped in various countries in the past twenty years, we have to consider just exactly what our money is buying.  While those bombs and wars may make us feel safer on these shores, they are also killing us financially.

I know there are those reading this who think that our national debt is an example of us “throwing good money after bad” and I would have to agree with that. Interest on the debt buys us nothing.  Still, we need to consider how we got there. What did we buy then that was worth so much nothing now?  Was it really worth it?

A reasonable fiscal policy, it seems to me, would figure out the problem, lower the debt, and then not make those mistakes again.  When all is said and done, I don’t think we’re going to find out that welfare mothers or extensions of unemployment insurance was the culprit in creating our debt. Still, I could be wrong.

In any case, our budget reflects our values – who and what our priorities are.  There is a perceived need out there for things like Chicopee’s factory clean-up and a perceived need for a war in Iran or wherever. Which are we going to choose? Whichever one we do choose, it is going to make our lives better or is it going to make things worse?  Are we going to throw money down a hole or are we as human beings going to get some benefit out of it?  And if we’re getting less benefit out of it than we put in, why?

These are the questions we need to ask ourselves.   It’s not “whether we’ll have a budget” or not. It’s “what do we put in the one we are making?”  


Just some thoughts for now…







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