Thoughts On Cost
by Nathan Empsall, Mon Feb 01, 2010 at 06:07:48 PM EST
Money is a means to an end. To believe that it is an end unto itself is to ignore the greater values that his country is capable of standing upon. Some policies cost money; others cost lives. That ethos, I believe, is at the heart of the progressive movement.
The Most Rev. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and titular leader of the world’s third largest Christian denomination (my own, the Anglican Communion), has an essay about finance and economics in the upcoming issue of Newsweek. I am particularly struck by this paragraph:
We must hang on to the idea that not everything reduces to one standard of value. Treat economic exchanges as the only "real" thing that people do, and you face the same problems confronted by the evolutionary biologist (for whom the only question is how organisms compete and survive) or the Freudian fundamentalist (for whom the only issue is how we resolve the tensions of infantile sexuality). Traditional religious ethics—traditional ethics of any kind, in fact—do not require you to ignore the hidden forces that may be at work in any particular setting. Being human is learning how to ask critical questions of your own habits and compulsions, and it's learning how to adjust them against a model of human behavior—an idealized truth about the purpose of our humanity.
Those in positions of power are rightly concerned with “cost”, but all too often it is the wrong kind of cost. They speak as if money is the only thing that matters when weighing the pros and cons of a given decision. Medical evacuations from Haiti to the U.S. were suspended for four days because Florida Governor Charlie Crist didn’t want his state paying for them. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is against giving Khalid Shaikh Mohammed the judicial rights our founders believed all persons should have because it would be “expensive for the taxpayers and… disruptive for New York City.” The Republican National Committee opposes cap-and-trade because, they say, "The Democrats are planning to jack up energy prices and pass the cost on to you and your family… Can you and your family afford an additional $3,100 in higher energy taxes a year?" (Ignore for a moment that that number is grossly exaggerated and focus on the underlying implication that fiscal cost is the only thing that matters.)
Money matters – you can’t do what you can’t pay for – but it should not make up the entire definition of the word “cost.” One of the most important textbook words I learned in college was “externality,” and Crist, Bloomberg, and the RNC have failed to internalize the externalities. They are not asking the right questions about cost. Yes, security for KSM’s trial would cost a bundle, but where does the Constitution say that “we the people” means only the people with cash? Aren’t our values supposed to be universal, not fiscal? Having the trial costs money; not having it costs our principles. Governor Crist, it’s only January; isn’t eleven months enough time to rework the budget for a new expenditure or to ask the federal government for retroactive aide? The evacuations cost money; the supsension costs lives. And yes, cap-and-trade might cost families a few hundred dollars a year, but do we really think that saving a few hundred dollars is worth the cost of 24,000 American lives lost each year to coal pollution, or that $300 per year is worth the cost of entire low-lying cultures?
Money is important. I’m ticked that, even without the stimulus and Iraq, the 2010 budget will have a bigger deficit than the 2009 budget. If we want to ensure that our most important programs are sustainable in the long term, then we can’t keep running deficits anywhere near this large. At the same time, however, there are things are worth paying for. When facing a choice between dollars and lives, money should be used on behalf of greater values. It should not be hoarded for its own sake nor distributed inefficiently through corporate welfare and tax cuts for the rich.
That is why I am a part of the progressive movement: My values remind me that people matter, and that money is nothing more than a means to an end. It may well be the most important means, but it is still just that, a means. Anyone who comes to believe that money, whether their own or the nation’s as a whole, is an end unto itself risks losing sight of the true power and depth of human relationships and of life. American citizens should seriously question the gap between our historical rhetoric and our modern reality.