Sunday, October 24, 2010

Chris Christie and the money tree

A few days ago, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was campaigning for a congressional candidate in Pennsylvania, and he offered this anecdote about the ARC Tunnel:
In our house, when I used to go my mother and say "I’d like something new, I’d like to buy something," my mother would look at me and say "well, of course Christopher, you can have that just go in the back yard and take the money off the money tree. You know where that is, right?" …to me it is a moral imperative to say no to these things.

Christie is clearly fond of this story in justifying budget cuts: he used it in January to describe Corzine's budget, and in July when discussing the budget of the Delaware River Port Authority. It's a cute little story, but it's not really helpful.

Christie describes his upbringing as "middle class," and it's doubtful that he ever had to go without food, clothing or shelter. His parents both worked and brought in money, so there was money for things that were a priority. When he wanted "something new," that wasn't a priority, so he had to do without. The honest thing for his mother to say would have been, "Christopher, we only bring in so much money. For us to have enough to pay for the thing you want, I'd have to work overtime, or else you'd have to go without new clothes for school this fall."

There is always money in the budget. That's what budgets are for. When someone says "there's no money in the budget," what they're saying is, "all the spending that's in the budget is a higher priority than this thing you want." Nobody likes to hear that their project is a low priority, so politicians fudge the issue by saying, "there's no money." The money tree is a cop-out, a way to avoid talking about budget priorities. I'm glad my mom was a lot more honest with me.

Brian Williams tried to get Christie to talk about his priorities, but he chose the wrong words. He stayed in the "no money" frame, so Christie was able to look justifiably baffled by Williams's question about "finding money." Williams needed to get out of that frame and point out, as I did, that Christie has no trouble finding money for projects that he likes.

Interestingly, Christie did point out to Williams that New Jersey "can't print money like the federal government." It's true: states don't have the power to set interest rates and perform quantitative easing like the Federal Reserve. Some states can borrow money to provide stimulus, but in New Jersey, the Governor and the Legislature are constitutionally required to pass a "balanced budget" with no borrowing.

Of course, Christie could support a constitutional amendment to get rid of that balanced budget requirement, or push the federal government to print money for stimulus, but he clearly likes that balanced budget requirement. It's his own lack of money tree, and he can point to it any time he wants to cut a program. Not quite a reverse Houdini, but enough to allow him to avoid being held accountable for his priorities.

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