Last summer my class at the University of Nevada, Reno for my Masters in Public Administration was public budgeting. What we discussed in that class was the fact that budgeting in the political process is always political, and never based on completely rational principles. We can do our best to include data and think objectively, but a the end of the day we must make political decisions and judgement calls when we decide where we will allocate funding. How we make those decisions and where we choose to spend money reveal our priorities. This is particularly helpful to understand when we look at our nation’s problem with mass incarceration. A lot of people understand that there are problems with the number of people we arrest and that we underfund a lot of social services, but I don’t think people fully recognize the costs of mass incarceration in purely financial costs, and how those costs relate to other programs or areas where the government could spend money.
Michelle Alexander provides examples of the budget being used to arrest black people in her book The New Jim Crow. Rather than using money for services and programs upstream, before we ever arrest an individual, our resources over the years have shifted toward our police and prisons, making it easier to arrest people and providing funding to keep people incarcerated. Alexander writes, “During Clinton’s tenure, Washington slashed funding for public housing by $17 billion (a reduction of 61 percent) and boosted corrections by $19 billion (an increase of 171 percent)”. She continues by quoting Loic Wacquant, “effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the urban poor.”
What the funding of public housing and prisons in the United States during the 1990s shows us is where our priorities lied regarding race, incarceration, and public housing. Alexander throughout the book demonstrates how a lack of affordable housing can lead to crime, particularly low level drug dealing charges. By taking away funding for public housing we set up a situation where poor people can barely afford a place to live and turn to illegal forms of earning money. Down stream this leads to more arrests and greater prison costs. Getting ahead of the drug dealing and arrest cycle in some cases is as simple as providing better housing (or any form of housing at all) so that an individual can work a basic job and afford housing.
Ultimately, our nation’s priority has been to punish those who we decide are bad apples rather than help those individuals create a situation where they don’t have to resort to illegal activity in the first place. We have conveniently told ourselves that success, failure, crime, and opportunities are the results of individual actions. The role of the collective and the importance of our position within society are downplayed when we look at success versus criminality, and as a result, we seek punishment for those who mess up and find it unacceptable to help those who are poor, struggling to avoid drug use, have slight mental health issues, and those who lack the education, skills, and abilities to become more successful in the low level jobs that we undervalue. If our priorities were truly aligned around helping people get a step ahead, or if our priorities were on creating a society where one could pull themselves up by their boot straps, our priorities would be reflected in a budget that did not decimate social services and public housing for those who needed some form of stability to help them get on the right path. Our nation has decided that directing ever greater funding toward police, prisons, and incarceration is a better use of our money as opposed to establishing a budget to fund upstream interventions to prevent crime and help build stability in people’s lives.
In his letter for James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, William T. Vollmann lists as number seven on his list of 21 pieces of advice the following quote, “Don’t buy anything or use anything you don’t need or want. Try to do constructive things with cash.” This little piece of advice seems so simple at face value, but if we really incorporated it into our lives we would see that it can have a deep impact on our lives. Focusing on what we buy and not buying things that could be labeled as junk will help us eat healthier, de-clutter our homes, and even focus on donating to better charities. Budgeting is one of the clearest ways to limit spending money on unnecessary things, but increased self awareness is a crucial step for anyone who wants to truly identify their spending habits. I just finished reading The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey, and in his book he recounts many stories of individuals and couples sitting down to budget for the first time, and being shocked at just how much money they were spending towards things they did not need or remember. The big takeaway from the power of budgeting is the self-awarenss that a good budget creates, and the control that planning and budgeting provides for our lives. Trying to avoid purchasing things we don’t need or use our money in frivolous and mindless ways will lead to more control and security in our lives.
It is easy to go to the grocery store and come home with a variety of things that you did not intend to buy, and this is not always a bad thing. Getting to the store and realizing that you need sunscreen and throwing some in the cart as you pass the display can be a good thing, while I would argue, throwing an extra candy bar or soda in the cart is not. In this example I am comparing the impulse to buy a skin protector, something that helps us be health, with a junk food that is not healthy. This argument is a little flawed, but accurately identifies situations where we can be spending money on things that will not help us, and will just leave us with a little less cash. One candy bar on its own does not mean anything, but combined with soda, cookies, and other junk foods the candy bar can become a dangerous habit that we spend money on each time we go to the store. Self awareness is required to see what you are buying at the grocery store and limit the junk you buy and the excuses you develop for buying that junk.
Vollmann’s ideas about consciously spending our money and making sure that we use our money wisely extends beyond simple shopping. I recently listened to an episode of the podcast Point of Inquiry where host Josh Zepps interviewed Peter Singer about morality. What surprised me was to hear that the majority of people who donate to charity do so on an impulse basis with little to no thought of the impact factor behind their donation. Any time we donate to charity we feel better and justified for our action, but we rarely take the time to identify how impactful the charity is, and how our money will benefit the programs or lives of those the charity aims to assist. Random and unconscious donations to charity may not be harmful and may be one of the constructive uses of cash that Vollmann encourages, but according to Singer we could still be doing more with our resources. I think that in the end Vollmann, through his quote about money, is speaking about making the most of the resources we have. Singer shows us that even one of our most coveted resources is often misused even when we try to do something positive. Searching for the most constructive use of our time, effort, and cash can help us feel more fulfilled, and it will allow us to have a grater impact on the planet. I followed the podcast by reading Singer’s book, The Most Good You Can Do, and was struck by the idea of intentionally donating money by consciously saving and making valuable contributions to charities that have the greatest impact on the lives and suffering of the global poor. One of the biggest surprises of affective altruism as Singer has named it, is the meaning that impactful donations of time and resources provide to those who are wealthy enough to give back. Affective altruists who make meaningful donations feel more connected with their community and those around them, and feel like they are making a greater difference in the world.