Over the past few days I have met with various colleagues in the public finance field and a couple themes keep emerging from our conversations- the power of symbolism and the level of civic illiteracy, especially with regards to budgetary matters. I find that the two are powerfully related, as political actors exploit civic illiteracy with symbols. The power of symbolism would be greatly diminished in a society with high civic knowledge.
Symbols can be powerful tools, allowing the political actor to make broader points. They are not, normatively speaking, inherently bad. However, I would argue that many uses in the political sphere are negative in their effect and serve to inhibit rational dialogue.
Our political discourse is replete with symbols of government waste- welfare cheats, unproductive government workers, police details at road construction sites, etc. They make fairly frequent appearances in political rhetoric, but especially in times like these when budgets are tight and services are being cut and/or taxes are increasing. Both politicians and lay people make broad generalizations about government finances based upon either anecdotal evidence or symbolic avatars of waste.
What the political audience does not grasp, and maybe some of the political actors don’t either, is how infinitesimally small some of these expenditures are. For example, TANF accounts for roughly 1% of state spending. But to hear some people speak, cracking down on welfare cheats alone would balance our state budgets! Another fun example here in Massachusetts is the two holidays that only people in Suffolk County receive. The talk radio blabbers hammer this point home on a fairly constant basis. But what would elimination of those holidays really save? Not much, because if those holidays were eliminated those people would still be paid to work. The only savings come from those who would now be paid straight time instead of time and a half on those two days. (And, there would presumably be some additional worker productivity as you would be paying people to work, as opposed to not work, on those days.)
The general public not only lacks a clear understanding of the actual budget process, but any notion of how those tax dollars are spent. The anti-government side of our political debate has made a concerted effort to focus on these symbolic items of outrage, rather than take on the task of educating the public. As a political decision, it makes perfect sense. If the public knew how little of its money was being “wasted” on these items, then they would be much less likely to support a political agenda of defunding and shrinking government. The underlying reality is that the average voter does not, at their core, believe that government is the problem.
With that said, why haven’t those of us who believe in government been more successful in educating the public? I would argue that some of the problem has been an unwillingness to engage. Too often, anti-government rhetoric is written off as silly and unfounded. And while that may be somewhat true, it does not address the underlying matter of civic illiteracy. Many people buy into these myths of huge government fraud and waste, based upon little more than symbols. An effort has to be made to educate the populace. To help them understand public finance. And also to promote our own symbols of effective government. In short, supporters of government need to traffic in their own bit of framing and spin. As unpalatable that may be to some, it is one simple way to help the general public grasp the successes of government.