Saturday, February 04, 2006

Foggy Resolution

The fog and rain rolled in and reminded us that we were still in the middle of winter. I headed to the Caltrain station Wednesday morning, momentarily grateful to be a mass transit rider who could look with pity, tinged with schadenfreudal satisfaction, on the poor souls stuck in traffic while we whizzed by.

Five minutes passed, then fifteen, and the waiting commuters grew restless. Track construction sometimes made the trains late, but not for this length of time. I called Caltrain customer service. The lady said that there was a pedestrian fatality in Redwood City, south of my station, and that service had been halted in both directions. It should be another 30 minutes, she predicted. I knew from experience that accidents caused delays of at least an hour (this time it turned out to be an hour and a half), so I headed back to the car. No schadenfreude today. Just self-pity.

I called the office to ask a colleague to move the 9 a.m. meeting back to 9:30. Luckily, he picked up the phone so I knew that he would pass along the message to the others. I don’t like to be kept waiting, and I try not to inflict the same inconsideration on others.

The traffic was stop-and-go on the Bayshore as I made my way to the City. The radio talk shows were critiquing the State of the Union address. A few people applauded, but most were disappointed. Some of the proposals were new, such as funding alternative energy sources and more math and science teachers, but they seemed shopworn. Maybe it’s just us; five years of excitement, tragedy, conflict, and polarization can be wearying, and we want to pull up the sheets. Or it could be that we’ve heard grand talk before, like last year’s plan to reform Social Security. Show us, Mr. President. We’re all Missourians now.

A word about taxes and the deficit, and then a personal resolution. Spending is the problem, not the degree to which we are taxed or not taxed. The government, no matter how worthy its purpose or how Solomonic the agents acting in its name, cannot purchase resources as wisely as millions of individuals who make decisions every day about how to direct society’s wealth. There are a few “public goods”, such as national security, that without government actions are not supplied in adequate quantities, but the scope of government has expanded so far beyond the provision of public goods that it is difficult to see under which principles one can now justify stopping its growth.

If Medicare is a right, why not universal health care? If school, why not pre-school? As government inexorably expands, it becomes the biggest buyer and loudest voice in more and more sectors of the economy. The grit accumulates, and we get bridges to nowhere and space shuttles that have long outlived their usefulness.

The national debt rests at nearly $5 trillion (refer to the bottom left hand corner of the Federal Reserve’s table here), an immense total beyond the comprehension of this humble observer. And it will only increase in the near future because we won’t be raising taxes or making a serious effort to reduce spending. The national debt has often been defined as a tax on future generations because posterity must pay the taxes to retire it. But this is not another polemic against fiscal profligacy

What if the debt never has to be repaid?

(Sorry, no sophisticated economics here: we are not going to wander off into a discussion about how a “permanent” level of outstanding Treasury obligations is actually beneficial to the financial infrastructure.) We have a flawed political system, but to paraphrase Churchill, still the best system in the world. As individuals, we also believe in paying our own way.

So our family will always own, at minimum, our share of the national debt, which presently stands at $17,000 per person ($5 trillion divided by 300 million people). By voluntarily advancing these funds permanently to the government, it’s almost the same as if we remitted this amount in taxes. Treasury bills, bonds, and notes are not very good investments, because there are others that will pay higher returns for nearly equivalent risk. But we often invest for emotional reasons (which explains why our track record has been lousy), so why not this one? Think of this as a “social” investment, the oldest and best, and one that you won’t lose any sleep over. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

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