In the 1997 sci-fi film “Contact,” a billionaire industrialist played by John Hurt introduces us to what he calls “the first rule in government spending” when he points to a hugely expensive construction project and asks a young scientist, “Why build one, when you can have two at twice the price?”
Talk about life imitating art.
With grim economic statistics mounting both here in Pennsylvania and throughout the nation, more and more of our fellow citizens are engaging in a collective belt-tightening. It is only our lawmakers who seem oblivious to the fact that the party is over. Our government — at the local, state and federal level — has for years behaved like Aesop’s grasshopper, who spent the summer singing and playing instead of preparing for the cold months ahead; now we’re facing the winter.
With national unemployment hovering near 10%, and with more jobs being lost every day, it would seem that our government would take its cues from its citizens, who have adapted to these lean times by doing what should be intuitive. They’re spending less. They’re not taking vacations. They’re rethinking the new stove, the new car, or the new television. But there’s more; Americans are foregoing even the smallest of luxuries. Movie attendance is down. Salon owners report clients waiting longer between haircuts. Fast-food sales have declined. There are signs of austerity everywhere we look — except in our government.
Here in Pennsylvania, our government is borrowing more — and taxing more — to pay for porky boondoggles that reward cronyism and appease ward heelers, but offer no practical benefit to the vast majority of taxpayers who get stuck with the bill. Drive through this state and feast your eyes on what your tax dollars have purchased: massive and expensive edifices bearing the names of Pennsylvania’s leading purveyors of pork. Consider two recent examples: the Arlen Specter Library at Philadelphia University and the John P. Murtha Center for Public Policy at the University of Pittsburgh’s Johnstown campus, both new construction projects undertaken with borrowed dollars — $10 million of them, each. This already staggering sum doesn’t take into account practical concerns such as staffing or maintenance, which surely will add millions more to the final total.
Clearly, this level of wasteful, frivolous spending is unsustainable. We need a fiscally responsible government willing to make the same hard choices every other American is now forced to make before he or she makes a purchase: Do I really need this now? Is this really necessary? And, most importantly, can I afford this? There is something fundamentally wrong with a system that writes blank checks for memorials and museums, and expects those checks to be backed by a citizenry who must think twice before super-sizing for an extra fifty cents, and who are counting the days until their next payday. Assuming there is a next payday.
A recent poll of Pennsylvania voters showed that 48% rank the struggling economy as the number one issue on which they will vote in this fall’s midterm elections. Voters instinctively know that their government can no longer engage in “grasshopper economics” with winter lying ahead. The average Pennsylvanian has looked at the economic news, looked at their stagnant wages, looked at rising unemployment and received a clear, unmistakable message: lean times are ahead for the foreseeable future, and it’s time to rein in spending. The question is, will they send that same message to their lawmakers in November?
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Matthew J. Brouillette is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org), a public policy research and educational institute located in Harrisburg, PA