As a humble educator (at least in the material sense, for those of you who have concluded that I'm cocky as all hell) there are many things I can't afford. I am not in poverty, of course, but I consider my lifestyle to be modest. A twelve year old car, a rental ranch in the undergraduate part of town, and so on. I bring this up only to point out that I can't afford things like luxury cars, expensive vacations overseas, designer clothes, yadda yadda yadda.
And I point that out only to poke tons of holes in my logic. You see, I totally could afford a BMW or a month in a Tuscan villa if I was willing to make a ton of sacrifices. I could sell every single object of value that I own and, combined with my retirement savings, blow the proceeds on an epic vacation. I could move into a punk house and share the rent with 25 other people, redirecting what I currently pay in rent toward monthly BMW payments. Or I could do as many people do and borrow money to pay for these splurges. So the statement "I can't afford ____" is very rarely accurate. It would not be a good idea for me to do any of the things I suggested here. It's clearly not impossible, however.
To use somewhat less ridiculous examples, everything I afford represents a choice. I like to collect commemorative coins. They are not useful, but I choose to buy them on occasion. Each one represents something else I chose to forgo. It wouldn't be accurate for me to say "I can't afford $300 shoes!" In reality, I chose to spend the money on something else because I am lucky enough to have some disposable income each month.
OK. The boring part is over. Here's the point.
The Republican primaries – as well as the 2010 elections – have been lousy with declarative statements about what the United States cannot afford. To hear the candidates tell it, there is a laundry list of unaffordable items. Some are currently in the budget and some are merely proposals. The bottom line is clear, though: we just can't afford _____. Health care reform. Social Security. Medicare. Public education. Stimulus spending. Physical infrastructure. Public employees. The space program. Environmentally friendly technologies. These and more are just too expensive.
That disingenuous rhetoric pours from Romney, Gingrich, Santorum (increasingly), and every dour-faced old Senator who shoves his mug into a news camera. Of all the "lies" we talk about in the context of politics and especially in campaigns, this is the biggest and most pervasive. We can afford whatever we want. We sent a bunch of goddamn rockets to the moon just to give the Soviet Union a big middle finger. We spend literal trillions on our defense establishment. We subsidize all kinds of favored industries at the expense of others. And the household/personal budget is a poor analogy here, as the government has tools at its disposal that radically alter the equation. It can raise taxes. It can print more money (see: World War II). It can reallocate what it currently spends. It can sell assets (like gold reserves). It can borrow.
I'm not arguing that any of those are or are not wise. That depends on context and one's risk tolerance. Printing money, for example, is probably not a good way to address the problem. The point is that we could afford any of the things we are told we cannot afford. We simply choose not to. Candidates who say "America cannot afford…" mean "This is not on my list of priorities." The history of this country, particularly throughout the Depression and Second World War, have proven that we can "afford" essentially anything we want. The question is, are we willing to make the necessary sacrifices? For the military and for corporate largesse, yes. The opportunity costs of those priorities are immense. For anything else, therefore, the answer is no. We say we can't afford them because that sounds prettier than the truth, which is that they simply aren't important to us.