Two days before Christmas, my eldest daughter and I engaged in what is now a decades-old tradition. We braved the late shopping crowds to complete our Christmas shopping together, just dad and daughter.
There’s nearly always a leisurely meal involved, some complaining about her students (or, more often, their parents), some sharing of our perspectives on the triumphs and struggles of the members of our large family and even larger social circles, and the pursuit of that one gift we puzzled over for weeks (there always seems to be one).
In this era of instant communication, our strolls down tinseled aisles often will be interrupted, however briefly, by reminders or requests. This year, one of those was from my wife and another daughter, back at home busily wrapping presents: “We’re going to need more Christmas wrapping paper.”
It’s so hard to plop down even a few dollars for some pretty wrapping paper on the 23rd of December when you know that on the 26th of December, it will be a fraction of that cost.
We try to buy most of our Christmas wrapping and decorations right after Christmas, delaying the gratification of enjoying the items for 360+ days for the immediate gratification of how much money we’ve saved.
That’s the power and the pleasure of a sale. Instant gratification. “Look how much I saved!”
Of course, the dirty little not-so-secret is that this strategy prompts us to buy things we don’t need, things that simply won’t meet the need or satisfy the want the pretty packaging and inspiring product description leads us to believe it will.
Whether retailers learned from politicians, or politicians from retailers, the same phenomenon is readily apparent in politics.
When I wrote about Florida’s public service blue plate special on Monday, that thought was very much in my mind.
The evidence seems clear; on balance, Floridians bear a relatively light state and local tax burden. For 13 cents on the dollar, our roads are paved and lit, our persons and property protected, our children educated, our water purified and delivered, our waste collected and disposed of, all while we can stroll in public spaces to enjoy this remarkable place we call home. We have books to read, concerts and festivals to attend, and help when we need it most.
But there is a dark side to these numbers. It appears that, in our focus on sale pricing public service, we may have cut too deeply.
Our state prisons and state mental hospitals are failing those who live there and endangering those who work there. Our at-risk children remain profoundly at risk. And over a million Floridians find they must treat publicly subsidized emergency rooms as their primary source of health care, at considerable cost to the rest of us.
Is our blue plate special, though attractively priced, inadequate to feed the needs of our growing and diverse population?
Personally, I don’t believe in magic numbers, whether those are sale prices, tax rates or the number of employees in a department. The analysis, for me, always should be driven by our policy goals and the extent to which we are meeting them efficiently and effectively. Throwing money at a problem rarely solves that problem. On the other hand, not having enough money frequently makes a problem worse. Cut enough, over a long enough period of time, and problems become crises.
I’m happy with a public focus on the value we get for our tax dollar. All of us should be held to account for how well we dispose of the public’s hard-earned dollars.
But it is about value, not just about price.
So please, don’t just sell us a cheap price. Show us the good we are doing, together, using the dollars we pool through taxes and fees.
If more money comes in than we need, give it back; don’t relax fiscal vigilance because times are good.
But if there are needs we believe in meeting that we are not meeting, ask for what it takes to do the job. That’s the responsible way to do politics.
I think most of us will understand.