By Frank Blechman
Government watchers love to say that budgets are not just lists of numbers, they really are statements of values. The implication: We put our money where our heart is.
The tug of war between the values of the economy and effective policy has been highlighted by two developments this past week.
First, the President called for loosening restrictions put in place to control the spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus. He said, “The cure should not be more damaging than the disease.”
Second, Congress passed a huge (over $2.2 trillion) economic stimulus package, as millions filed for unemployment insurance and the stock markets crashed.
Both of these actions represented a belief that as “leaders” they had to do “something” in the face of a crisis. These judgments were based on hunches and gambles more than anything else.
In movies, we are thrilled when the hero takes a huge gamble, particularly if–against all odds–the gambit works and the universe is saved. In real life, where the consequences of bad decisions are so large, we have less enthusiasm for big bets on unknown futures.
In movies, we are thrilled when the hero takes a huge gamble, particularly if–against all odds–the gambit works and the universe is saved.
In real life, where the consequences of bad decisions are so large, we have less enthusiasm for big bets on unknown futures.
This has been a problem we have struggled with throughout human history.
- It was a little easier when our gods walked the earth and talked with us regularly. Being omniscient and omnipotent, their advice could be trusted.
- When our gods stopped walking around with us, we defined our leaders as (all knowing, all seeing) gods. Egypt, Babylonia, even Rome used this approach to raise confidence in and stifle complaints about risky decisions.
- Well, if not gods, at least our leaders were descended from gods or had some special relationship with them. We had to hope.
Our American experiment went far to reject these ideas. Our leaders were humans, not all-knowing, all-seeing creatures. We divided power, hoping that collectively, we were smarter than any one of us. If this remains a fundamental value, our actions and our budgets should strongly reflect it. More important than “protect the economy” or “provide medical tests to everyone” or “preserve the airline industry,” the fundamental value shining through our actions in these troubled times should be this: No one has all the wisdom. No one can see the future. No one should “bet the farm.”