I am my shopping cart. My shopping cart is me.

When faced with a plethora of choice, buy everything. (Courtesy: Ashoka)

Choices abound for consumers in the post-modern era. Those with access to internet and/or television are bombarded with images which are idealized, criticized, and analyzed for the express purposes of making a choice. This choice is not merely one of  ‘What should I buy?’ or ‘What do I want to look like?’, but is instead a more fundamental query: “Who do I want to be?” We consumer-citizens would be foolish to think that our political and economic lives can be disconnected from this constant churn, or that this constant process of choosing is particularly healthy.

In the United States, Britain, Japan, and most of the developed world economies, the financial crisis of the preceding four years and the fiscal stimuli used to help prop up the economy has pushed already-large budget gaps over the tipping point. As discussed here previously, the Greek and Irish meltdowns of the spring and summer weren’t necessarily a product of profligate spending (Greece was basically committing long-term fraud, Ireland’s housing market imploded spectacularly); but reckless spending elsewhere (most notably in the US) could lead to a similar meltdown without some serious examination of the short and long-term costs driving the expansion of government budgets.

There’s a problem inherent to the mode of slash-and-burn, scorched-earth, kill-it-with-fire approach being pursued by PM David Cameron, many US governors, and Chancellor Merkel of Germany. It defeats the purpose of cutting costs because the hidden costs of the cuts being made create higher long-run costs that, inevitably, these same governments will have to address at a later date. An across-the-board budget cut of 5% is admittedly brave for a head of government to ask for; and in one sense, it is sensible in that it entirely eliminates the problem of sacred budgetary cows. Nothing, in this scenario, is sacred. This becomes problematic, however, when you examine the consequences of not picking and choosing your battles. One balances the budget to keep the bond vigilantes away another day–a good thing, no doubt–but children on the margin lose their talented teacher because s/he is young and inexperienced. Infrastructure (a major concern in the US and the source of unreal levels of vitriol), whether it be upgrading and expanding the ‘high-speed’ rail system or paving roads and shoring up highways, becomes more expensive and difficult to repair/replace without the funds necessary for upkeep. Health care savings, as envisioned by the Cameron government, entail adding thousands of workers to unemployment rolls and may (I want to be careful, this is unsubstantiated) lead to poorer health care–which, of course, leads to greater medical costs in the future. Raising taxes, whether across the board as has been done in Illinois; or targeting the wealthy, seems to be a non-starter in most places facing these budget problems.

Budget Cutting is Fun!

It's supposed to be surgery, not butchery

Raising taxes, cutting popular programs, investing in infrastructure, picking fights with teacher’s unions, attempting to preclude collective bargaining by state workers, taking control of a currency and then bleeding your neighbors dry by undercutting their exports: governments around the world with budget problems are making decisions on what to cut/tax from a broad but awful menu of choices that in many ways seems to preclude one another. ‘You can’t raise taxes and cut spending, you can’t cut education, how can you cut health care, etc.’ gets pitched as some cataclysmic fight to the death over ideological precepts that seem to preclude mixing and matching. The worst thing to be these days, it seems, is a chimera. If you don’t follow a set formula for addressing such a problem, then how are the people supposed to know what you are? To paraphrase Bill Parcells: you are what your choices say you are.

This, of course, seems to preclude any hope for the creation of optimal policy solutions. It is a reflection of society as a whole that is reflected when one considers how potentially destructive such a mentality can be to society at large when creativity in the service of governance is stifled by the rigid intolerance of ideological precepts and prejudices. Choosing between cutting taxes or cutting expenditures; safeguarding certain areas where a decrease in outlays could be more harmful than helpful–these are all false choices. There is no either/or necessary here because as our conspicuous consumption has taught us, you can have it all–or you can have none of it. More promisingly, you can choose multiple options simultaneously; and then drop what doesn’t work. Much as we create and shed narratives and identities and create individual identities out of an amalgam of created ‘skins’, so too can the body politic reflect just such a flexibility. Individual politicians certainly have demonstrated that it’s possible–so then why doesn’t this apply to approaches to economics or political ideology? It’s a silly dichotomy, a false choice, and a product of ideological battles that are as much about theater as about any substantive disagreement. That said, I leave you with a fine example of what happens when substance meets theater. It’s rare enough that four years after the fact, its sheer novelty has not lost its sheen: