Sunday, February 7, 2010

How the Right, and the Rest of Us, Can Shrink Big Government

Musings of a Snow Shoveler

It was so quiet on DC streets yesterday, you could hear yourself thinking. The streets weren't completely impassable, but only a tiny number of vehicles drove by; the great majority of cars were stuck in snowdrifts and garages. High mounds of snow narrowed the roadways, absorbing much of the noise made by the mainly emergency vehicles and snowplows that did pass by. There were no trains running on the four lines of railroad track about a block away, and the blowers and fans that heat and cool the air for the hospital buildings nearby were, for once, inaudible. Humans were out and about, shoveling and talking and, somehow, the otherwise sound-deadening qualities of the snow facilitated the easy travel of conversational voices.

A neighbor two doors away shoveled vigorously east, so I shoveled vigorously west. We met halfway, a proud moment in the ongoing process of reclaiming the public right-of-way. Like the meeting of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railways, it was a moment deserving of celebration, so, though we've lived on the same block for three years, Scott and I introduced ourselves to each other for the first time in history. Sadly, the neighbor to our east has failed to shovel his sidewalk, so the full corner-to-corner pathway remains incomplete.

But before the historic meet up with Scott, I couldn't help reflecting that the economic output in the very big East Coast neighborhood, ranging from as far south as, say, North Carolina, north to New York state and west to Pittsburgh had dropped dramatically. In fact, probably the single most productive activity in the whole megalopolis was moving snow around, a lot of it volunteer activity. My own snow moving output for the weekend, about six hours worth at a conservative $25/hour (snowplow drivers contribute much more) ought to add about $150 to the Gross National Product.

This thought got me to the further notion that if people who are most particularly incensed by big government really wanted to advance their cause, they could go out and do an hour's worth of volunteer activity every week on behalf of someone less well off, sicker or older than they are. Cutting grass, building a wheelchair ramp, making dinner, picking up medicine on behalf of someone who would not be able to do those things themselves, might, in fact, leave them undone would add huge sums to the GNP. Moreover, doing them would be preventative. They would improve quality of life for the beneficiaries, increasing health and well-being, and reduce the cost of future government intervention.

Say, for argument's sake, that 10 million people, otherwise consumed by political frustration about Big Brother, did engage in this sort of volunteerism for an hour a week and 50 weeks a year. At a conservative labor value of $20/hr., these activities would add about $10 billion to GNP. If 10 million more progressives, wishing to encourage such volunteerism and desiring to share directly in the community-building process were to match the effort, we could add another $10 billion to GNP and dial down ambient political heat in favor of light. If the same 20 million were to also give away their spare change to the homeless twice a week, we could inject another $2 billion annually into local economies. If all of this were to happen on a yearly basis, the total would equal a modest stimulus package, and it wouldn't take 60 votes in the Senate to make it happen.

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