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Everyone's (and No One's) Budget

My mind was on federal finances when I came across an article about a gym teacher from my former high school receiving a federal grant. My brain started spinning, not because the article summoned painful memories of pull-up contests and mile runs, but because it hinted at the beginning of the end. The seemingly nebulous article subtly exposed the tip of an iceberg that could sink our political and economic system.

I am not a conspiracy theorist or a fear monger but I make connections where they exist and one exists here - between spending federal dollars on an exercise program in southeastern Pennsylvania and a bloated and misused federal budget.

Let me explain. Apparently, my gym teacher had applied for and received a grant from the federal government for nearly $300,000 to ensure that the students of the school district eat healthy and exercise properly. Why is money from the federal budget, which draws greenbacks from the pockets of Americans from Florida to the state of Washington, going to keep kids fit in a community in southeast Pennsylvania? If this community, which is economically vibrant, wants their high school to splurge on sports and fitness programs then they should pressure their own school board to raise local taxes to fund the program, as they would be the beneficiaries of such a program.

Getting back into shape after 20 years of fast food and a sedentary lifestyle is tough. Addressing our federal budget problems will be like sprinting stairwells at high altitude when you are 75 pounds overweight.

The blame for this skewed distribution of funds, however, does not fall on the gym teacher who applied for the grant. The money was available and if he did not get it someone else would have. The root of the problem lies in the nature of the federal budget. Our federal budget is a common-pool resource that we all own (or at least all of us who pay federal taxes) and, therefore, is effectively owned by no one. Our federal budget is so immense and the budget process so removed from our daily lives that we view the federal coffers as some far-off gold mine waiting to be exploited. The following excerpt from governmentgrants.net (private Web site) illustrates this point. "Free Cash Grants are being funded by the U.S. Government each and every day. These Government Grants are Funded from Your Tax Dollars. This Free Money can be used for any purpose you can imagine" (my emphasis added).

Many people believe that a good representative is someone who can bring the major federal dollars home to his or her district. Bill Shuster, U.S. representative of the 9th district of Pennsylvania, highlights in one of his brochures that he "brought home millions of dollars for infrastructure improvements in the 9th district." And why shouldn't representatives strive to bring home all the federal dollars that they can? After all, it's free - or so it may seem.

The old saying in economics that there is no free lunch certainly holds true in this case. We live in a world of scarce resources and the money in the federal budget comes from someone, either current or future taxpayers.

Misuses of the federal budget undermine the long term health of this country by concentrating power in Washington and taking resources from entities that could have used the money more productively. Uncontrolled discretionary spending is a chronic disease, one that will grow slowly but surely over time.

More and more resources and responsibilities will be transferred to the federal government. With more resources comes more power - and the power of the purse should not be underestimated. More power means more chances for the abuse of power.

The founding fathers brilliantly diffused power through the federalist system that distributes responsibility and resources among various spheres of government (local, state, national). This safeguards against the concentration and abuse of power, and it also makes functional sense. Issues concerning school programs and zoning should be resolved by affected citizens in a local forum while other issues such foreign policy should be discussed at the national level.

Getting back into shape after 20 years of fast food and a sedentary lifestyle is tough. Addressing our federal budget problems will be like sprinting stairwells at high altitude when you are 75 pounds overweight. Congress blows through its own spending caps without much debate. Honest discussion over where federal monies need to go and where they do not need to go may only occur if we have a constitutional amendment that requires a balanced budget while allowing for short-term deficit spending during an economic downturn.

Of course, amending the constitution would require congressmen, the same people who cannot respect their own spending caps, to permanently constrain themselves. In any case, a continually vexing problem for the U.S will be how to manage the money that everyone (and no one) owns.

Jeremy Weber, from Mohnton, Pa., is a senior at Juniata College studying International Political Economy.