When the proponents of austerity and the opponents of “big government” make their case to the public, they emphasize the inefficiencies in public services and the waste of public resources. So the implication is that taxpayers’ money can be saved—and taxes can even be reduced–without actually reducing the public services that taxpayers receive.
One of the solutions proposed by the proponents of austerity and the opponents of “big government” is, of course, the privatization of public services. Many taxpayers take away from such proposals that they will somehow no longer be paying for such services, and therefore, they would be very surprised to learn that their tax revenues are still paying for those services. The only difference is that the people doing the work are being paid much less than public employees are paid and receive much reduced benefits, if any benefits at all, because there is a finite pool of revenue and private corporations compensate their executives better than the public sector does and because private corporations also have to pay dividends to stockholders. Worse, no one ever seems to do follow-up studies on how much money privatization actually saves—in particular, on how much money, if any, it saves when the public attention has shifted elsewhere and contracts are renegotiated.
Very similarly, the ordinary taxpayers who support austerity seldom notice that, despite the very public proclamations of dramatic reductions in taxes, their own taxes never seem to go down by very much, if they go down at all. The reductions are clearly going elsewhere, to corporate interests and to the most affluent individuals, and the resulting deficits in governmental budgets then become the rationale for the next round of cuts in programs that the Far Right does not ideologically support.
Indeed, since governmental budgets have generally not decreased as privatization has increased, it is clear that “corporate welfare,” in this form and a multitude of others, has simply replaced “social welfare” as the great drain on public revenues.
For even when privatization is pursued aggressively, governmental budgets almost never decrease. The proponents of austerity and opponents of “big government” will point to ever-rising expenditures on social safety-net programs that encourage “dependency” instead of personal responsibility. But when the Far Right has controlled the executive and legislative branches in a state for several successive terms and has made draconian cuts to those safety-net programs, this sort of argument no longer makes any sense—at least superficially.
What no one ever seems to acknowledge is that the cuts to safety-net programs may actually be very counter-productive—very cost-inflating, rather than cost-effective. If, for instance, Medicaid dollars are not spent on preventative care, then when poor people must absolutely receive medical treatment, that treatment is likely to be much more involved and much, much more expensive.
And that illustration is one of the few in which the cause and effect relationship between austerity and higher actual costs to government is readily apparent. In most cases, the cause and effect relationships are less clearly defined but no less real.
Indulge me as I provide what I think is an apt analogy. One of the major employers in the small city in which I live is an oil refinery that is surrounded by a half-dozen chemical plants. The neighborhoods that are downwind of the refinery and the chemical plants are very poor because the odors from the refinery and the chemical plants make them very undesirable places to live. Those neighborhoods also have much higher cancer and emphysema rates than the other neighborhoods in the city. When a study was conducted to determine the cause of those much higher incidences of illness, the exposure to the air pollution created by the refinery and the chemical plants could not be isolated from poor health habits such as heavy smoking, excessive drinking, poor diets, and neglected medical care as even the primary cause of the residents’ health problems. So the refinery and the chemical plants were, in effect, off the hook in terms of public accountability. But the results of that study didn’t demonstrate, of course, that the refinery and chemical plants have had no impact on the health of those living in the neighborhoods immediately downwind from them. The study didn’t “prove” that the odors from the plant were simply a cosmetic problem, an annoyance.
An article recently appeared in the Columbus Dispatch about a noticeable increase in sightings of rats in a number of Columbus neighborhoods—in particular, middle-class and even upscale Columbus neighborhoods, including the Short North District, which includes a large number of shops, restaurants, and clubs. When contacted, city officials produced statistics that indicate no substantial increase in the complaints about infestations of rats. But the reporter not only found many people very willing to provide anecdotal evidence of the problem but also much visual evidence of the rats’ nests and of the fairly widespread use of traps being set near those nests in an effort to reduce their numbers. The city’s statistics may not show the real dimensions of the problem because its very successful rat-eradication program was a victim of budget cuts in 2009, and as the problems with rats have gradually re-emerged, it has become common knowledge that there is no practical point in contacting the city about the problem.
One can argue, of course, that businesses and residents should simply contract with exterminators, but that solution assumes that everyone will do so somehow in concert and that the rats will conveniently concentrate themselves on the private properties being set with traps. It assumes that rats recognize the property lines and other boundaries that human beings have devised.
So this is a problem that requires a governmental response, a comprehensive program much like the one that succeeded in eliminating the problem before the funding for the program was cut in 2009. By the way, that program cost less than $300,000, which for a city the size of Columbus is an extremely modest amount, especially when one considers the potential economic impact of the problem.
It would almost certainly seem a very modest amount for anyone having to live among the growing population of rats. It would certainly seem so for those businesses depending on foot traffic and selling food or really any sort of goods. No one wants to buy a meal at a restaurant anything from a store into which a rat has poked its nose. These kinds of economic costs are not easy to calculate, in total, until a whole neighborhood has been degraded and both sales and property taxes have dramatically declined. But the costs are easy to track and to reduce if government actually has the means to be more immediately responsive to the needs of the people that it is supposed to serve.
Austerity has led to the elimination of any number of small programs that may have seemed relatively inconsequential but, it turns out, can have a very major impact on the quality of life within a community.
What most ordinary taxpayers who support austerity don’t seem to grasp in that “social welfare” includes not just their own Social Security and Medicare, but also a host of other generally unnoticed programs that make their individual lives more pleasant and their communities more livable.
The old axiom holds true: you get what you pay for—or, more aptly perhaps, don’t pay for.
And sometimes it’s rats.