Two Kinds of ProblemsPosted: September 4, 2013
My Not So Humble Wife and I recently moved into a new house, and I discovered that moving when you are middle class and in your late 30s is a lot different from moving when you are poor and in your middle 20s. My past experience with moving involved a lot of grunting, lifting, swearing, sweating, and general disorganization. This time there was far less of all of that, mostly because my wife was there to organize things, but there was also another very notable difference: money.
You see, when you’re in your 20s and poor, you lack the resources to do much besides rent or borrow a truck, call a bunch of friends and offer them beer and pizza in exchange for their labor (the barter system at work), and then bust your hump as hard as you can to get the job done. It may take all day, it may even take all night, but you do what needs doing because there are no other options. Money changes things. Specifically, it enables you to pay someone else to do the heavy lifting. When you’re in your late 30s and it’s a lot harder to get a bunch of friends together (especially friends who are capable of doing hard labor), that makes a huge difference.
There were also all the little things that can go wrong that went so much more easily this time around. Lost something in the move? Sure, we can go digging around for it, but do we have the time? There are fifteen other things we need to do. Just buy another one. Something got broke? Not to worry, we can replace it. The old place needs to be cleaned before we move out? Why spend three days doing it ourselves when we can hire a cleaning service?
This may sound profligate and wasteful, but there was a method to the madness. The philosophy here (as I explained it to my wife, and she was kind enough to quote back to me in a moment of panic) was that there are two kinds of problems in this world: the kind you can throw money at and make them go away, and the kind you can’t. The former are the easy ones. I know that’s a bit reductive, but it’s true. What I discovered in this latest round of madness… excuse me, moving is that there are any number of difficulties we face, and we are both at a point in our lives with multiple competing priorities for our time. If there is a way to “buy off” one or more of those priorities, or just to make a problem not be a problem by spending money on it, it’s well worth the cost to do so.
Of course, being me I couldn’t just leave that thought alone, so I had to chase it down a bit. I followed that line of logic and realized that it sounded an awful lot like the sort of thing I have for so long accused politicians of doing: mindlessly throwing money at problems rather than considering whether or not the money is actually fixing anything or improving the situation. I am well aware that applying lessons from microeconomic situations to the macroeconomic is a dangerous game that tends to lead to faulty conclusions, but it did lead me to some interesting realizations.
Politicians, little as I think of them as a class, don’t just throw money around for the fun of it. They have to have some reason, if only because there are so many competing priorities for the money and they want to support the best of them (defining “best” as you see fit and as your view of politicians demands). Only there are so very many problems, and it’s so hard to stay on top of them all. Drugs, childhood obesity, unrest in the Middle East, civil rights, gun control, education reform, energy policy, foreign intelligence, minimum wage, income inequity, NSA spying… the list goes on and on. It’s not like when our country was young and could just call up a couple of friends, rent a truck, and move out West. How do you know which are the problems that can be solved by throwing money at them and which ones need more complicated solutions?
There has to be some problem, some issue that someone has brought to their attention, and that someone has convinced them can be made to go away by throwing money at it. This makes it an easy problem. And solving problems is what we send politicians to Washington for, right? Those people are called “lobbyists”, and they’re very good at what they do. It’s not that they don’t care, or that they don’t believe, it’s that they do care, and they do believe, and that’s why they need the money: because they have a problem to fix.
So I think I understand a little better now. It’s seductive to try to solve problems by throwing money at them. There are just a couple issues with that approach, as we’re finding: you can’t solve every problem just by throwing money at it, and no matter how easy it is with someone else’s money, sooner or later you run out.