Consider this. Today, a newspaper reporter called me to ask for comment on a U.S. government study that suggests that more than 40 percent of the people of pre-consolidation Augusta live in poverty (that is, basically, 40 percent of the people living in the "old," downtown Augusta area).
Also today, I received an e-mail from a South African colleague. He writes: "Many of us are in a state of euphoria at the moment, in the wake of a remarkably peaceful and fair election. I sincerely hope -- as both an economist and a futurist -- that this is a harbinger of socio-economic prosperity and tranquility in the years ahead."
In other words, he was breathing a big sigh of relief.
By return e-mail I wrote: "Tell (the new South African president) that long-run growth and prosperity stem from but four sources: (a) people must be healthy, (b) people must be educated and have the opportunity to freely pursue options based on that education; (c) people must be secure in their person and property; and (d) the role of the state is to look after these fundamentals -- no more, no less."
Perhaps I should offer the same advice to U.S. policymakers, federal, state, and local. I know that many people instinctively shrink from engagement with questions of poverty and what can be done about poverty. But turning away does not resolve problems. It prolongs them.
The fundamental fact of the matter is that people who are ill, ill-educated, and insecure about their personal safety and property are unlikely to be productive members of society.
What the more fortunate amongst us and our elected policymakers need to focus on is to provide those resources in those areas that convert liabilities into assets -- to themselves, their families, neighborhoods, and communities.
By resources I do not necessarily mean "money." For example, relative to private schools, public schools are flush with money. Since public schools in our area neither stack up well when compared to private schools nor stack up well when compared to public schools elsewhere in the nation, the problem is obviously not money per se but a distorted incentive system that makes it impossible, even for well-intentioned students and teachers, to perform as well as they could.
I see no intrinsic reason why our local school systems shouldn't boldly break the mold and try really different things such as school vouchers and integrated K-12 schools (research shows minimal drop-out rates and higher achievement scores in integrated schools).
As regards health, I continue to think that it is a shame that the nation continues to spend health-care money to treat instead of to prevent ill health. Free health-care for mothers and children up to age six costs money, sure -- but for every dollar spent up-front, several will be saved "downstream."
There is no disagreement amongst public-health experts and economists about that. I cannot fathom how high-end tax-payers would fail to see that they, too, would benefit from this scheme as it, ultimately, would reduce outlays for medical assistance to the poor and, equally important, would convert them into healthy, contributive members to society that eventually will pay taxes, instead of using them. The affluent vote. They (meaning, you) should make better electoral choices or run for office themselves.
Economists are scientists. There are things we don't understand as well as we would like. But there are things that, fundamentally, we understand quite well. One of these is that without solid education, good health, and personal security, people won't be productive.
Consequently, the primary task of government should be not to supplant the private sector, but to supplement it appropriately so as to give all people the start they need to become productive assets and contributing members of their communities. This is as true for South Africa's new president as it for Augusta's politicians.
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