Beyond the political posturing over state and federal budgets, there looms an age-old philosophical divide over human nature, perhaps defined as the therapeutic versus the tragic view of our existence. The therapeutic view — thanks to the bounty and affluence brought about by modern technology — has largely triumphed. The tragic view is deemed the domain of the embittered, the selfish, and the downright mean.
There are several tenets of the modern therapeutic view. In such a utopian mindset, compensation is and should be based on what the employee considers necessary for the good life. The public employees in Wisconsin reject the three classical requisites for perpetually improved compensation: The employer has plentiful capital; the employee’s productivity creates new wealth or improves the efficiency of services; and the employee has market value and will go elsewhere should the employer be foolish enough to lose him.
Again, in the therapeutic mindset, perceived need is what matters, and all else must adjust accordingly. Teachers in Wisconsin rarely argue that their students’ test scores have increased or graduation rates have improved, or that their school districts are flush with cash, or that they themselves can always move to a parochial school or private academy if their talents are not better appreciated. Instead, in almost every contemporary discussion of budgetary discipline, from pensions and benefits to compensation, the argument is based on what one needs, in the teenage fashion of reminding a now unemployed parent that he once promised to buy the graduating senior a car.
When reality does not match dreams, somebody must make it go away. The Democrats have proposed cuts of less than 1 percent in federal discretionary spending. Neither party will touch Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security. Apparently both parties have agreed not to raise federal income-tax rates. The recommendations of the national debt-reduction commission do not envision a healthy Social Security system until 2037. Planning to cease running up more debt in the future is apparently seen as too tough a financial medicine, and so the commission’s suggestions have so far been ignored. That is reality. And it must vanish.
Therefore, the first person to suggest cuts in entitlements is portrayed as callous rather than prudent. Fantasy offers some relief: Perhaps an inflationary, expansionary economy can pay off what we owe with more plentiful dollars. Euphemism can disguise the bad, as in the designation of terrorist acts as “man-caused disasters” and the war on terror as “overseas contingency operations.” So too perhaps we can rename these gargantuan deficits “Stimulus III,” or the unsustainable borrowing “investments in our future.”
Central to the therapeutic view also is a sort of adolescent shrug at consequences. If the delta smelt is deemed the barometer of healthy aquatic life in the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, then a quarter-million acres of land will have be cut off from contracted irrigation supplies in order to divert the water to save the three-inch fish. Few of the biologists who engineered such strategies ever computed the wealth sacrificed by idling thousands of acres, the jobs lost, or the communities nearly destroyed. In the therapeutic view, the appeal is always to cosmic rather than earthly justice. If a tenured biologist’s job security is not predicated on bringing in a crop of carrots, if he can argue, in apocalyptic fashion, that saving the ecology of the planet is more important than a few “corporate” farms, then the rest of us are less likely to question such purported idealism — and not at all likely to wonder whether without such periodic existential crises we might need fewer tenured biologists and far fewer research grants.