Every granite countertop that is made, every ensuite bathroom constructed, every patio laid out, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
In Australia, the government has just announced it will give 25,000 dollars to homeowners who do a home renovation costing at least 150,000 dollars. Don’t worry though, it’s not just a handout to the rich! It won’t be available to couples earning more than the modest income of $200,000 dollars a year- that’s well over twice the median household income of about $90,000(1). Granite counter-tops for some whilst the poor languish.
You’re probably shaking your head, murmuring that it’s disgusting etc. Good. I’m worried, though, that it’s almost impossible to convey how disgusting it is- to make you feel it in the ancient parts of your brain. This act is equivalent, more or less, to several score murders. Let me explain my reasoning.
The scheme is estimated to cost six hundred and eighty-eight million dollars. Economists have a concept called opportunity cost- that the real cost of an activity or expenditure of resources- the opportunity cost- is equal to the best alternative use you could put the resources or time to.
Even with the constraint that the money had to be used for immediate economic stimulus, I have no doubt that the government could save many lives by spending the money more wisely. For example, it could contribute an amount to social housing equivalent to more than doubling the social housing expenditure of Victoria. Doing so would save lives through:
A) Protection from domestic violence
B) Protection from homelessness (the average life expectancy of a homeless male in Australia is about 46 years
C) Protection from chronic financial stress, which is a factor in shortening lives.
The opportunity cost then, of not using these $ 688,000,000 million dollars wisely includes, among other things, many lives.
Here is another way to look at it- in official statistical exercises the Australian government values saving a life at 4.2 million dollars. Whether you agree or disagree with this figure, it represents the government’s view. On this very same view then, wasting six hundred and eighty-eight million dollars is equivalent to wasting about 164 lives. This is over four times worse than the worst massacre in modern Australian history- the Port Arthur massacre- which killed 35. Wasting this much money is as bad as several massacres not because money is worthy and valuable in itself, but because money can be used to save people.
In the past, I’ve tried to make the argument that we do not regard politicians as culpable in the way we should. If a politician does something that foreseeable kills someone without justification- for example, tolerating a brutal policing culture or keeping people locked up who needn’t be, then we should regard them as having killed the victim in more or less the same way as if they’d wrung the life from the victim’s neck with their hands- but we don’t. I’ve argued that there’s a kind of aura or penumbra around politics (the moral-political penumbra) that makes people insensitive and emotionally shielded from its worst moral implications- that makes us unable to recognize the equivalence between killing through government and other sorts of killing. I’ve even suggested, half-seriously, trying to break through that by visualization exercises of politicians doing brutal things themselves.
But the problem is doubly compounded when the deaths are indirect and caused by economic deprivation. Even though at a statistical level we can see that policies cost lives and save them, we rarely hear the stories of those who die as a result of economic policy.
Somewhere there’s a person. It could be a man or a woman. They’re more likely to be a person of colour than white, though they could be of any race- so visualise them however you like. That person won’t be alive in a few years because of this wasted money. They will die in pathetic circumstances- the proximal cause could be an abusive man with a knife, or it could be hepatitis B compounded with cold winter nights on the street. And there are many, many such people.
It’s probably a wan hope, but I want to invite you to try and change your outlook- to regard outrages like this as every bit as dire as overt brutality. It’s hard, I’ve been banging on about this for years and I still can’t do it consistently, but we should keep trying.
(1)- These are pre-Covid figures, the real median household income is probably considerably lower now.