I like being asked. It means I have a choice. I can say no.
Not that I always do.
They’ve been asking me, over and over during this stay-at-home pandemic, to support our local restaurants. If I don’t help them stay afloat by using their carryout and delivery services, their dining rooms may be closed forever once the crisis has passed.
It’s been a pleasure to honor that request, even for a few restaurants I didn’t normally frequent and one in particular I’d been semi-boycotting because it took the owners months too long to remodel and they screwed up the menu in the process.
Fast-food chains, let’s face it, have corporate giants behind them and will survive, but a world with only Taco Bells and McDonald’s would be a much poorer one. A diverse feast of local cuisine is an important quality-of-life component, and I’m more than happy to do my share.
That was not my attitude a few years ago when asked to support the Komets, our city’s semi-pro hockey team, and my answer was a resounding no. I don’t remember the exact argument, but the gist was that I should go to a game because if I wasn’t there for the Komets, the Komets wouldn’t be there for me.
But I did not care even a little bit if they were not there for me. A sporting event is an amusement, and if it doesn’t amuse me, I’m not buying a ticket. Don’t hate me, rabid fans, but I never got hockey and never will. You might as well ask me to champion the metric system or buy a Jackson Pollock painting.
Now, perhaps you think my choices are stupid or even contradictory and unjustifiable. But you should heartily endorse my ability to choose how to spend my money, just as you should celebrate when you can make choices with your money.
Talking about the choices we make can help us define, for ourselves and each other, the limits of our selfish instincts and our commitment to the greater good. It’s a movable line, and nudging it a little this way and then a little that way is one of the privileges of civilization.
Of course, we get to make fewer and fewer choices these days, because the government doesn’t ask. It tells.
It told us, for example, that we must support efforts of the Shreveport Opera in Louisiana to take its performances before public school students, so the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) cut a check for the program using our tax dollars.
Now, that check represented a tiny portion of the NEA’s $155 million budget for last year, and that total was itself a minuscule percentage of the federal government’s $4.4 trillion budget. Little bitty drops in a gargantuan flood of crazed spending. It might seem a trifling thing to get all hot and bothered about.
But it’s exactly the point that it is small enough to understand and therefore focus our irritation on. We can relate to having to choose between eating out and seeing a hockey game while we’re also supporting opera in Shreveport and a drama school in Danville, Ky., and a library in Madison, Wisc., and an “intergenerational arts project,” whatever that is, in Phoenix, Ariz.
If opera is such a necessity for the quality of life in Shreveport, La., why in God’s name can’t the people of Shreveport take care of it?
It’s also a good symbol to illustrate just how far we’ve gone beyond the original idea of the welfare state of simple decency, providing a basic level of food and clothing and care for the least capable among us.
The government spends roughly $140,000 a second, more than $8 million a minute, $500 million an hour, $12 billion a day, day in and day out, all year long, an obscene amount of it on things the government should not even be involved in.
We are inching ever closer to a couple of tipping points that will redefine this country forever – when half the country pays no income taxes at all, and the ones who do foot the bill will see their total state, local and federal tax bill top 50 percent. When that happens, the government’s chief function will be to confiscate wealth and redistribute it, and this will then be a country more about demanding compliance than seeking permission.
Most of the focus during our national quarantine has been on the breathtaking speed with which the country ground to a halt and our short-term choices were drastically curtailed. Not enough attention has been given to how the mechanics of the breakdown will hasten the arrival of those tipping points.
After deliberately killing one of the most thriving economies in American history, created by millions of Americans making billions of individual choices, the government tried to breathe a little life into the corpse with spending that is incomprehensible even by today’s standards.
The COVID-19 relief bills total nearly $2.5 trillion already, and nobody thinks the government is done yet. Never mind how much non-health-related pork is tucked into the legislation. Never mind what it will do to the deficit, which was already nearing $1 trillion. Never mind how much will be added to the already staggering $23.5 trillion national debt.
This was the moment when all of us – politicians from both ends of the political spectrum, Americans from all walks of life – decided that none of it mattered. The numbers are just too big to deal with, and it’s all pretend money anyway.
But what happens when we realize it all does matter, when we stop thinking about getting out of the house and making small choices again and start thinking about that point down the road when most of our choices are gone?