Checks Unbalanced: The Quiet Side of Public Spending

Checks Unbalanced: The Quiet Side of Public Spending

Checks Unbalanced: The Quiet Side of Public Spending

Checks Unbalanced: The Quiet Side of Public Spending

Excerpt

Avoidance and obfuscation are not often found on the list of civilized arts, but the march of progress has made both essential in the modern world. Civilized people go to great lengths to avoid having to confront unpleasant news and uncomfortable feelings. We help others avoid collisions with what they would prefer not to know—and what we would prefer they not know—through elaborate subterfuges.

When we hide our private business, as a matter of personal privilege and social convention, we deal with the consequences, good and bad, alone. But when we practice avoidance and obfuscation in public affairs, the consequences reach us all. A civilized penchant to look away—the willingness of some to hide and of others to tolerate the hiding of the public's business— is on its face antithetical to our society's fundamental governing precept: government by the informed consent of the governed.

Yet avoidance and obfuscation of the public's financial business are a national pastime approaching an art form. We carefully avoid noticing over $1 trillion in accumulated government liabilities to government retirees and $4 trillion to current and future social security recipients. We hide over $300 billion in annual federal spending and unmeasured billions in state spending by carrying it out on the tax side of the budget. We roll subsidies and loans together into complex bundles that make it hard to discern what —or how much—was given away. We studiously look the other way while public infrastructure systems crumble into disrepair, then seek off-budget "creative financing" schemes to renew the cycle of construction and decay. We engage in modern shell games to lure firms into one state rather than another, and fund the inducements through low-visibility tax abatements.

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