Opinion and Forefront

CAMPBELL: Foolishly cutting investments in the future

November 12, 2011

Steve CampbellThe topic of the day locally and nationally, other than the economy, has been debt. As a former student who is still paying college student loans, a one-time 20-something who abused credit cards, and a present day homeowner, I understand debt. Everything except the term “good debt.” When financial advisers tell me: “Oh, don’t worry about that. That’s good debt,” I hear, “Oh, don’t worry about that. It’s the good kind of root canal!”

That’s why I have been particularly taken by this discussion. Even though I question the timing of this national debt epiphany—just in time for the 2010 and 2012 elections, and candidates need talking points—it is absolutely a fair topic to discuss and is always worth discussing.

The watchwords of this debate have been “our children and grandchildren,” and which candidate’s or party’s vision best looks out for their interests and leaves them with the lowest possible bills.

But even as many warn of the dangers of, as Gov. Daniels calls it, “the new red menace,” there is another type of national debt growing: a moral debt.

We may have the best budgets in the world, but if the people whose hard work and money built those budgets and should benefit from them are suffering, what does it matter? If we ignore massive problems, that we know will only intensify in the future, how is that any better for our children and grandchildren than leaving them with higher interest payments?

I think about this every time I pass an empty lot where an abandoned gas station or dry cleaner used to stand. Forty years ago, these shops dotted the urban landscape of America, and there were virtually no rules to prevent dumping chemicals, contaminating ground water, and polluting the neighborhood. Today, without intensive and horribly expensive remediation, that land is useless and undevelopable.

Yes, 40 years ago, it would have cost the business money. Yes, it would have involved some type of government agency regulation. But the “children and grandchildren” who live in these neighborhoods today would be able to see a lot usable for a new home, a new business or a pocket park.

It boggles my mind that we balk at investing heavily in things like early education and full-day kindergarten, when we know—from science and common sense—that by doing so, you avoid even greater expenses in the future, like police cars and jail cells. We are going to pay for it; it just depends on whether you’d rather pay for it now, or pay double later.

Before anyone calls me the scary “L” word—liberal—let me say two things. First, whenever I hear a politico throw out the “L” word, it generally means he or she has run out of coherent arguments or points, and simply yelling it out is a last-second field goal needed to seal the game.

Second, I would consider the truly “conservative” view to be spending as little money as possible. That would mean investing in some of the things many of today’s so-called conservatives find distasteful, so we don’t pay double later.

Sure, I believe in keeping budgets responsible. I believe in lower taxes. I believe in cutting government waste. I believe in cutting deficits. I believe in eliminating debt. Who really doesn’t?

But I’m not blind. I see that Hoosiers are not doing as well in just about every indicator as they were 10 years ago. So as we continue to slash budgets and hold the line on taxes, we have to equally realize that people’s lives are at stake, and there is a moral cost.

We’re going to end up paying one way or another; it’s just up to us whether we want to do it in the most frugal way possible.•

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Campbell, president of Campbell Strategies, was a deputy mayor under former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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