The Feds: Gamblers And Addicts

As the newly-seated US Congress debates the details of the proposed presidential stimulus package, I am reminded of a cautionary tale, forgotten from the long-ago first term of George W. Bush. When the President finally warmed to the idea of our moral obligations to do something about the humanitarian crisis represented by the HIV epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa, he responded with typical Texas swagger. Not content to say that we needed to do something to help, he, in one fell swoop, dumped a staggering 15 billion dollars on the relief effort.

It sounded wonderful, almost as if he’d finally “gotten religion,” along the lines of Jesse Helms, the long-time senator from North Carolina, who claimed that he did not want to meet his Maker without being able to say he’d done something about AIDS in Africa.

The problem was, as with so many of Bush’s Big Ideas, that there was no detailed explanation of where the money was coming from, nor where he intended it to go.

The question of where from seemed pointless; we racked it up as one more piece of “deficit spending,” a prettified name for a shameful reality. But more relevant to the current debate in the Congress was the question of where such enormous sums would go.

The simple fact is that, for all the good will in the world, there was not sufficient infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa to absorb such staggering amounts of money. Into that structural vacuum crept countless federal mandates. The Centers for Disease Control, for instance, have a number of relatively small field stations, research facilities coordinating work on malaria and other blood-borne diseases. In the absence of a coherent alternative, they were ordered to become AIDS research labs as well. A great deal of the initial outlays went into converting relatively small field stations into much larger research laboratories called upon to expand their mission well beyond their current scope. The results thus far have been mixed; suffice it to note that a great deal of the initial outlays went into construction, not into AIDS research and prevention. We actually had first to build the institutions that could then absorb the research funds.

That is a cautionary tale, it seems to me, for the current rhetoric of the legislative and executive branches of the federal government, institutions that sound alternatively like gamblers and/or addicts. How to fix the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into? With more or what got us here. More debt? More money. Where is it coming from? As near as I can tell, we’re simply ordering the mints to print more of it. Lots more if it. Then we will dump it on whatever institutions, banking and otherwise, that can absorb it the fastest. In a paper money economy, you see, the difference between money and credit is very difficult to gauge. This new printed money is a vague promissory note, one we simply continue to believe will hold onto its perceived value among those who collect it, store it, and spend it.

Where will the money go? It really isn’t clear. The main targets for immediate funding are obvious ones: research and production of alternative energy sources; health care modernization and reform; more high-tech in the nation’s public schools; traditional infrastructures like roads and bridges and airports and ports all badly in need of high-tech repair.

The buzzwords of the day speak of “shovel-ready” projects. It is less and less clear what that means. Are there really shovels, with men and women at the handles, eagerly waiting to be put to such work? Perhaps. There certainly are in New Orleans and its environs. But enough to absorb these staggering sums? That seems doubtful.

And I begin to worry that this proposal, well meaning as it is, is as little thought-through as most plaNeither the emotions created by scandal or by crisis are good for democratic deliberation; we have had ample evidence of this frightening truth as we have watched alleged economic experts perform so blithely and reactively to one crisis after another, communicating little confidence that they know what they are doing or understand where this new tidal wave of cash will actually go.

So, flow the money will, anywhere between 600 and 800 billion dollars worth… but where will it go?