Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #036. First published in the St. Cloud Times July 27, 2010

My late parents were born in 1913. This means their 20s were smack in the middle of the Great Depression. From stories they told, I know you and I wouldn’t want to be living through a replay. My grandmother remembered a Thanksgiving when the family gathered around a table on which the main course was a picture of a turkey cut from a magazine.

When I hear people complain about government spending or about propping up the financial system, or saying that the stimulus program hasn’t worked, it’s those tales from the 1930s that come to mind.

History isn’t science; we can’t go back to 2008 and see how things would have played out had there been no Troubled Asset Relief Program, no American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. As a wise historian, G.M. Young, once wrote, “The first lesson of history, and it may well be the last, is that you never know what is coming next.”

But if there’s even a less than even chance that these actions averted what my parents’ generation experienced, I am enormously grateful to our elected officials — let me repeat, our elected officials — for what they did in the face of a potentially catastrophic emergency. Economists who have studied the Great Depression believe that this time we came very close.

I hope that at the federal level the stimulus will keep coming. The deficit must be dealt with, of course; but in the short term, concern for our children and grandchildren should focus on the long-term depressive effects on them of a flat or shrinking economy in which their grandparents and parents lose hope.

Now, the tools federal officials have for solving economic puzzles are different from those available to state executives and legislators, who are mandated to balance each budget.

I’m not so silly as to think there aren’t limits, but I believe it’s a huge mistake to treat our common life as a zero-sum game: I win, you lose; you win, I lose. Either “I” spend my money or “they” (the government) do. But the government is we the people; we have banded together to get things done together for the sake of all of us.

I recently met Jerilyn Scott, who lives near Westwood Elementary School. A stay-at-home mom with three sons, she is a student at Minnesota School of Business, where the academic program and the flexible schedule suit her needs and professional goals well.

Jerilyn and many other students there and in similar colleges hear rumblings that state legislators want to reduce or eliminate the financial aid available to them, aid that is literally what makes it possible for them to go to school.

It would be foolish to adhere to a “no new taxes” dogma at the expense of investment in people like Jerilyn. The financial aid she gets as she works toward an associate degree in medical assisting, and then a bachelor’s and eventually a master’s in health care management, will pay huge dividends in the health of others that she promotes and the economic productivity (including the taxes she pays) generated by her employment.

But the dividends are down the road.

And that’s the biggest challenge facing us — jarring ourselves loose from simply and only asking “what’s in it for me right now?”

Not long ago I took our sweeper for servicing at a local shop. While there I noticed a phrase pasted to the wall: “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.” We ought to apply this business wisdom to our life as a state.

Let’s consider value as well as cost. When “We, the people of the state of Minnesota” (as our constitution begins) invest in people — especially in their education and health — and in infrastructure (from bridges to broadband), we are wisely providing for a future of broad-based prosperity in which cutout paper turkeys on Thanksgiving tables are the stuff of after-dinner story-telling.