A colleague of mine has a different quote in his e-mail signature every few months. His current one is from Thomas Sowell:
The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.
I couldn’t help but think of that quote when I watched yesterday’s episode of 60 Minutes. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was talking about the state’s water shortages. Partially because of drought and partially because of environmental restrictions because of the Delta Smelt, California’s farmers are having to leave large swaths of their land barren. Almond trees that took 20 years to grow are being mulched because there simply is not enough water to go around.
Schwarzenegger seems to think that the way to fix the problem is to borrow $11 billion to renovate dams (to increase water storage capacity) and many more billions to build a new canal to route water around the delta, saving the Delta Smelt. Nevermind that the new canal would be a larger project than the Panama Canal. In Schwarzenegger’s words: “I love cranes.” I can just picture the governor now playing with Tonka trucks in his sandbox. 60 Minutes correspondent Leslie Stahl asked the governor about the trade-offs that need to be made here between water for drinking and water for farming.
Leslie Stahl: There are people who say the southern part of the state is thirsty. They say that some of these farms should just go out of business, that they take too much water and people need that water.
Gov. Schwarzenegger: Yes, you know, of course, I, I, I totally understand that. But I look at the whole picture again. I tell you, I want it all! I love our farms!
Leslie Stahl: Yes, but is that realistic?
Gov. Schwarzenegger: Yes, it is realistic. Anything is realistic! It doesn’t mean that because it’s a desert that we cannot go and bring water in here and start growing things. All we have to do is deliver water and then we can grow anything we want!
Leslie Stahl: So much for the idea that the state is entering an age of scarcity.
The tone in Stahl’s voice as she delivers that last line is dripping with sarcasm. Good for her pointing out the obvious.
I guess it’s perfectly reasonable for a man whose career was made starring in movies with computerized special effects can think that anything is possible. As Avatar has now shown, anything is possible in movies these days. I mean, if they can make us believe that the bus in Speed could actually jump a 100-foot gap in a freeway (Mythbusters test: not even close) and convince us that Maggie Gyllenhaal is anywhere close to attractive enough to substitute for Katie Holmes in The Dark Knight without us noticing, then what can’t those guys at Industrial Light and Magic do? Maybe Schwarzenegger has been around Hollywood so much that he can’t distinguish reality from CG fantasy.
I would like to think that Schwarzenegger’s proximity to Hollywood is the cause of his behavior. But, sadly, almost all politicians do this very thing. Pointing out that we cannot do everything for everyone without borrowing from someone else or sacrificing something is considered anti-American, unpatriotic nay-saying. We’re the greatest country in the world and we can do everything! USA! USA!
Since we can’t handle the truth, politicians don’t tell it to us straight. Because we don’t want to make sacrifices, the government gives us their only solution: spending more money. Nevermind where that money comes from or the long-term costs of borrowing money or the effect on jobs from raising taxes. Why, I’m sure we’ll just get the rich people to pay for it anyway. God forbid we try letting the market work, allowing the tighter supplies of food and water to cause consumers to conserve resources more so that there is more water to go around to its most valued use. Just give the government more money and they’ll fix all your problems.
Listening to Schwarzenegger talk and the enthusiasm with which he wants to borrow and spend so much money, you would never know the state is almost $50 billion in debt with a $21 billion annual budget deficit and the worst credit rating of any state in the nation. And you would also never know he has a degree in Business and International Economics from the University of Wisconsin–Superior.
It looks like Sowell was right.
P.S. Whether Schwarzenegger realizes it or not, there is always a sacrifice. The cost of the previous over-spending is the MC Hammer-like credit rating the state now has and the higher interest payments that result from it; as well as the lost tax revenues from people who have fled the state because it has the highest sales and income tax rates of any state in the nation. You can’t avoid the first rule of economics no matter how hard you try.
P.P.S. (For Benjamin’s comment): One’s cute, the other…not so much.