IBJOpinion

MARCUS: 'Tis the season to spend responsibly

Morton Marcus
November 28, 2009
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Morton Marcus

Initially, I was going to write this week about the innumerable foolish purchases we could make this holiday season. As I looked through the Sunday newspaper, I felt overwhelmed by the advertisements that offered such deliciously dumb items as a singing toothbrush holder.

However, with so many worthless opportunities for ridicule, I began to relent. The ads told me merchants believe there are many consumers attracted to these items. Perhaps I should encourage responsible behavior rather than criticizing inappropriate expenditures.

Then, in my head, I heard a voice say, “And who appointed you to sit in judgment of how others spend their money?”

That question is supported by the belief that we are entitled to spend our money as we choose (as long as no laws are violated). We could easily say that, without that right, liberty is denied. Some might see shopping as a citizen’s expression of liberty and the shopping orgies of the coming weeks as glorious celebrations of economic freedom.

From this viewpoint, government taxation to support public services limits our freedom and encroaches on our liberty. This makes sense if citizens of Jackson, Jasper or Jefferson counties do not value the services supported by government. If you live in Syracuse or Sullivan and see your money being used by government wastefully, you clearly prefer to have lower taxes and the ability to spend, even waste, your money as you see fit.

Sadly, most of us don’t know enough about how governments spend our funds. We’re not in a position to make informed judgments about spending by the library or the school district. We don’t know if the Department of Public Works is efficient or a massive boondoggle.

Unfortunately, many who run for public office prey on our ignorance. They declare they will cut the waste, demand efficiency and put the taxpayer first. This is junk talk that is too popular throughout Indiana. Any politician who talks about taxpayers and not citizens is a demagogue, an ignoramus or both.

If we had truly dedicated politicians at the state and local levels, they would make fiscal transparency their highest priority. But that is no good without a core of dedicated citizens who can examine government’s financial records without partisan or ideological rigidity.

This line of thought, however, does not keep me from asserting that this holiday season we will spend excessive amounts of money on trivial and momentary entertainment. Instead, we could make contributions to local organizations that make long-term investments in our communities.

Want to do something important? Cut your spending on gifts for the family and give a generous check to your local adult literacy program. Write a check to a conservation group, like the Sycamore Land Trust. Donate to your local public library or school foundation. These groups will keep your money working for years to benefit many, not for just several hours to benefit a few.

As for the question about who appointed me to sit in judgment, I consider that the right of every thinking person with some morality. We do not extend free rein to actions that harm others directly. What you do with your money is your right; it doesn’t mean your choices are right. Your expenditures influence the marketplace in which others must live and use resources that are not limitless. Thoughtless expenditures are as threatening to society as drunken driving. Spend responsibly.•

__________

Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.

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