When you come across the offer of something for free, do you get all tingly?
If there’s one thing I could make people understand about economics and being a smart consumer and voter, it’s that free usually isn’t. Let’s get the obvious out of the way now: There really is no such thing as a free lunch.
Well, no. The bank probably has slightly cut your savings account interest rate, or nudged up the rate it charges on loans. Or it has found other fees for handling your money.
Ha! You can be sure retailers price their products to recapture shipping costs.
Free points for the slots at a casino? Or a discount on your room?
Give me a break.
The same what’s-the-catch scrutiny should apply to politicians proposing supposedly free benefits.
Free birth control or regular health screenings?
No. We’ve just found another way to pay for those services — money from other taxpayers. Or providers raise their prices for other services, insurers raise premiums, or employers don’t kick in as much to cover the rising costs.
Mandated paid sick days and maternity and paternity leave?
Don’t you think employers will hold down pay raises? Or put more people on part time? Or finally decide to spring for that machine to replace you?
Consider President Barack Obama’s proposal to provide free community college tuition — just as, some said, we’ve long made primary education universally free to students.
That’s certainly a surprise to home and car owners who pay property taxes for schools. Even renters pay property taxes. They just have to give the money to their landlords first.
Understand, harping about politicians essentially buying votes with “free” benefits doesn’t mean such policies are bad ideas.
On mandated paid sick leave or maternity-paternity leave, the U.S. is behind other prosperous countries that use such policies to strengthen families.
Turns out, happy and less stressed workers remain just as productive, and maybe more so. Who’d have thought, right?
When politicians and others offer benefits for free, they’re usually trying to obscure the fact that costs are hidden somehow and shifted to other taxpayers.
Take the perhaps great idea to subsidize community college tuitions. It now looks as if it could founder because people realized that it was to be funded in part by eliminating the tax breaks on 529 college savings accounts (a provision the president abandoned last week).
When politicians hand out supposedly free benefits, I think it leads to a fraying of our civic commitment to one another. For starters, many taxpayers resent being seen as money machines. It would be nice if once in a while politicians actually thanked taxpayers for their money.
Politicians should instead talk more about cost trade-offs involved. Taxpayers have decided to sacrifice money today to ease others’ burdens or to help them build a better future.
Then, say, those who received a community college education at no cost would be more likely to make similar sacrifices when they become taxpayers — maybe even wealthy ones.
To reach Keith Chrostowski, business editor of The Star, call 816-234-4466 or email email@example.com. Twitter: @keithc3.