Our Infatuation With Wasting Money

What is truly odd about our nation’s public, private, and corporate spending is that so much of it provides no discernible benefit to our citizens.  

Whether we are talking about buying a pair of shoes that are supposed to make us happy, schools continually spending oodles of money on programs that don’t educate, businesses shelling out for corporate health program that cannot be shown to improve employee health, or government impoverishing us by spending money on programs and agencies that are unnecessary—or unnecessarily expensive—we continue to pour our money into failure after failure.

The question is why?

First, we must acknowledge a basic and painful truth: Failures still provide paychecks, so they will always have a constituency ready to rush to their defense.  No matter how pointless an expenditure might be, it still provides jobs—albeit absurdly unproductive ones.  Therefore, there always will be a frantic unwillingness to face up to the fact of failure in order to keep the money rolling in.  

The author Upton Sinclair famously pointed out many years ago that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”  This is particularly true when the money you are spending is not your own, so any sign of failure often induces those whose paychecks are at risk to immediately double down in order to avoid uncomfortable questions.  Therefore, we can be certain that the corporate fitness manager will quickly order new treadmills and paint the locker rooms a soothing color before anyone can notice that the only employees who are staying fit are those who would have stayed in shape whether that office gym existed or not.

In addition, perhaps fooled by a natural hubristic belief in our own cleverness, many seem to share an all-too-human faith in their abilities to flawlessly solve every life difficulty.  

This fallacy is clearly proven every time an elected official wants to be re-elected.  Needing to prove they have been solving our problems and making our lives better in order to win our votes, any wildly expensive program will suffice.  These typically end up as further proof of the same, often lampooned, three step truism about how politicians approach government spending: We must do something, this is something, so we must do it.  Bureaucrats of all stripes also know how to play this game in order to justify their own department’s allocations, and taxpayers can be certain that no reliable follow-up study will ever been done to determine if a given program’s money was wisely spent.  

This is a particular affliction in education, where expensive program after expensive program to improve academic outcomes has failed to teach the vast majority of students to read, write, and use math to a level that prepares them for college or a career.  Given these many decades of educational failures, it it perhaps unsurprising that so many public schools have moved on from teaching academic skills to the questionable practice of offering students psychological support to improve their self-esteem, so-called Social-Emotional Learning.  The results have been both sad and comedic.  Never, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, have so many felt so good about being so stupid.  However, these programs at least have the benefit of being inherently unable to demonstrate any measurable outcome on one of those pesky standardized tests, so all that is really needed to maintain their funding is good, old American bureaucratic blather and inertia.

Moreover, our internet-connected culture now encourages what might be termed “performative compassion”. 

By carefully curating a version of reality on social media that wins approval—and perhaps dollars—from a worldwide audience of fellow image makers, our deliberate oversharing of what used to be private makes some feel better about themselves and leads other attention junkies to view them more positively.  

The dysfunctional world of education provides many examples of this 21st century affliction.  Merely teaching the ABC’s is nowhere near as gripping as a narrative tale of celebratory self-acceptance—one that is likely wholly divorced from traditional educational concepts of teaching and learning.  Johnny may not be able to properly use source material to support a point of view in an essay or plot an equation, but he will have a wonderful tale of personal discovery to share on Instagram.  

It is not much of a shock that public schools and many colleges would, in particular, lurch in this peculiar direction.  Parents, whose good will is needed to either assure continued taxpayer funding or to write a tuition check, gobble up stories about sad children and wistful young adults made magically happy by a school-based support program in much the same way that couch potatoes inhale bagfuls of Cheetos.  Perhaps it would be better if that same young person’s self-esteem and self-confidence were boosted by actual classroom achievement, but this idea now seems passé. Too demonstrate compassion is all that is required of many educational programs today—demonstrable academic outcomes are an annoying afterthought that apparently interests few.

Finally—and perhaps most importantly—spending is often used to deflect attention from the real source of our problems.  

Just as we might buy a pair of shoes to distract ourselves from the miseries of a bad marriage or cranky boss, so do we become enamored with wasteful spending that provides the benefit of misdirection—and this pretty much explains much of our social service spending in America today.  It is much easier to provide food and housing assistance than ask why so many bereft children are being raised by single mothers who have been abandoned by their baby daddies.  It leads to fewer questions if we provide addiction treatment rather than ask why so many Americans turn to drugs and alcohol to fill the voids in their empty and lonely lives.  Nobody gets offended if we pay for remedial education instead of asking why the first—or second or third or fourth—attempt to graduate from college was a bust.  Cash asks less than an honest inquiry into our spirits, behaviors, or values might otherwise demand, so passing out money is always found to be preferable when the truth might hurt someone’s feelings—or demand an honest reckoning regarding one’s own efforts or abilities.

It is, of course, often the case that more than one of these four misguided imperatives will provide the excuse for a well-funded failure.  A very good example of how there are many times more than one reason for wasteful or destructive spending is the past year of government mandates forbidding residential evictions.  

First of all, the tens of billions of dollars in rental assistance handed over to states requires an army of government employees—all receiving a lovely paycheck—to process the applications and disburse the cash.  In addition, a problem is supposedly being solved, although few seem to worry about the financial disasters being inflicted on our nation’s landlords.  Moreover, forbidding evictions for non-payment of rents allows a great many government officials to demonstrate how compassionate they are in the run up to their next election campaign—while ignoring the insane distortions of the free market that are involved.  Finally, the eviction moratoriums have delayed a reckoning with the actual underlying cause of this problem: a catastrophic public health overreaction that erased a historically strong national economy under President Trump—perhaps in part for nefarious political gain—and destroyed businesses, jobs, and lives on a historic scale.

Particularly in light of the vast ideological, social, and political divides in America today, there is perhaps one more reason that out-of-control government spending has become the norm: pure and simple fear.  With the consent and cooperation of the governed now being more and more withdrawn, a justified terror of political violence and politically-violent speech now grips our nation’s leaders and elites.  Verbal attacks on traditional institutions of legislation, education, and the law are now a daily occurrence, and doubts about the legitimacy and intentions of our elected leadership grow with every passing day.  Worse yet, today it is not uncommon to encounter serious discussions regarding the possibility of secession or violent revolution, which drives many in power to desperately seek out new ways to ease the anger of those who are suffering so that they don’t take out their anger on them.

Money has historically been a method for buying peace.  Pharaohs, Emperors, Kings, and, more recently, democratically elected leaders have routinely distributed their national wealth to buy the favor of those whom they rule.  The Biden administration’s rush to hand out money on a monumental—some might say incredibly reckless—scale might indicate that their fears of resistance approaching the level of an insurrection are at the forefront of many of their spending priorities.  Anyone who watched or experienced our nation’s cities burning this past summer or the storming of the U.S. Capitol this past January has to have noticed that anger is the actual epidemic in America today.  

To presume that rage will not at some point turn against our own government is foolhardy, and it is a sure bet that Democrats are hoping a steady stream of magically conjured federal cash will forestall the terrifying reckoning that is perhaps only one more crisis away from becoming a harsh and unforgiving reality.