By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications
My wife, Melissa, matter-of-factly made this statement the other day: We have been trained to expect that our needs should be cheap or free, and our wants can be expensive.
The context was a discussion about the costs of health care, an obvious need. Americans expect insurance or the government to shoulder most of the cost of health care, employers to pay for most of the costs of insurance, and out-of-pocket expenses to be minimal. We’re outraged if a necessary minor procedure results in a bill of a few thousand dollars, but many of us will pay that same amount for vehicle accessories or for a larger house without making too much of a fuss.
Education is a need, and it’s free through the 12th grade. Teachers, a necessary profession, are expected to work pretty cheap, as are police officers and firefighters. Those aren’t luxuries, after all. Winning sports teams, however, are a want, so coaches and players are paid high salaries.
Electricity and clean water – they’re needs, and they’re cheap, considering their importance and what it takes to provide them to us. Meanwhile, many people pay as much for cable TV as those necessary utilities combined.
Gasoline is a need, too, and when the price first started rising towards $4, it sparked national outrage. How could something so necessary be so expensive? Many felt as if they were being taken advantage of. But many people will pay $4 for a soda or a beer at the ballpark or a cup of gourmet coffee.
There’s a downside when we expect our needs to be provided cheap or free: What happens when the costs rise – as with health care? Health care costs are now an unsustainable 18 percent of our national economy. One way to control those costs is to require individual consumers to pay more at the point of service so we’ll shop around for better prices or refuse unnecessary care. But that would require us to pay more for a need, which makes us uneasy.
Another challenge occurs when wants become needs, such as a college education. In the past, college was a want – an important want, but not an absolutely necessary one, which meant it was OK that it was expensive. Today a high school education is no longer enough for most professions. Most jobs of the future will require at least some post-high school education.
So what do we do now that college is a need? One solution has been to subsidize it with a want – the lottery. Who doesn’t want to win the lottery, even though it’s an inefficient way of funding scholarships that often preys on the poor or the misguided?
There are good reasons to subsidize certain needs. A free public education through the 12th grade gives all citizens, rich and poor, the chance to achieve foundational workforce and life skills. Health insurance, public and private, protects us from sudden, undeserved financial catastrophe and frees us to pursue our goals and callings.
But needs must be paid for, and ultimately, paid for by us. That 18 percent of the economy dedicated to health care comes from the taxes we pay and from the insurance fees that come from our pocketbooks and our employers’ bottom lines. If our insurance benefits were not so expensive, our salaries would be higher.
So we really do pay for needs. We just want to feel like we’re not. I’m not saying to stop all the paying, but we do need to stop all the pretending.