‘Free’ is very expensive to somebody

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The more I think about it, the more I think we, the nation, need to stop using “free” when describing government programs. Last night, for example, I was able to return home for the first time in days. Our electricity restored after this week’s windstorm meant our water, heat, lights, and refrigeration were restored too.

After washing and putting away dishes and pans left in the sink when the power went out; tossing out formerly refrigerated and frozen foods; showering, shaving, and putting on fresh clothes, I brewed a fresh mug of black coffee, unpacked my laptop, and sat down on the couch to catch up on my email and news.

I went to my Facebook page and there it was. Another conversation about “free government programs.” The thread kicked off with “Dennis” suggesting the U.S. stops foreign aid and use that money to provide “free health care.” A few posts later, someone else adds, “I would also like to see us provide free medicine and free education.”

Before going any further: my purpose in writing about the phrase “free government programs” is not to analyze the merits of these programs. Government programs are not free. As Maine’s governor pointed out in this newspaper (in the Oct. 25 issue), “‘Free’ is very expensive to somebody.” And that’s what’s really the heart of the matter.

When someone who otherwise comes across as intelligent is publicly calling for “free education” — what are they thinking? What would their “free education” system look like? How would it function? With strictly volunteer teachers? Would we require trained and certified volunteer teachers? Would these teachers be trained and certified gratis? I think you get the idea.

It’s the same with “free medicine.” Follow the trail from the training and hiring of scientists to test and develop new medicines, to the labs where medicines are produced, to the manufacturing facilities, to the medicine storage and distribution networks, to the hospitals and pharmacies and all the medical professionals therein. Is this entire “free medicine” network to be “on the house”?

So many people seem to not know that, in truth, “free government programs” are paid for by taxing people’s income. That’s what the Governor is talking about. Depending on your age, income level, marital status, and other considerations, the federal government alone is taking a percentage right of your paycheck, every paycheck, right off the top. The US currently has seven federal income tax brackets, with rates of 10 percent, 15 percent, 25 percent, 28 percent, 33 percent, 35 percent and 39.6 percent.

We still have perennial debates over lowering, raising — even eliminating — the income tax vs. property tax vs sales tax. But the bottom line is, no matter which tax we’re paying, we’re doing so out of our income. Therefore, all taxes are effectively income taxes. Congress and the President are in the initial stages of reforming our tax system right now.

The perception of “free government programs” leaks through into other areas. Bond issues, for example. I remember from my political years how it always puzzled certain politicos how many bond issue proponents believe they are voting “yes” on “free money.” They are surprised to learn they’re voting “yes” to borrowing money which must be paid back with interest.

Maine legislators, I remember, would urge other legislators to vote yes on bills offering “free” federal dollars. Of course, those federal dollars were not free and came with many strings, expensive to taxpayers, attached.

Each “free” instance seems small and inconsequential. But like little white lies, the use of “free government programs” grows until that phrase describes something exactly the opposite of “free.”

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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