When we hear the cliché “You get what you pay for,” we generally assume it means that the more you pay for something, the better quality product you’ll get. But it can also have a different meaning: If you reward someone for doing something, other people will see that and assume they should do the same thing.
For example, Americans are often criticized because we value sports over academics. Athletes make millions and teachers don’t. But that’s why most children long to grow up to be sport stars and not educators. We’re getting what we pay for. The problem is we’re no longer paying for the things we need.
New York Fed President William Dudley recently bragged that our national economy is improving: “Today you can buy an iPad 2 that costs the same as an iPad 1 that is twice as powerful,” he told a crowd in Queens. But, as the Wall Street Journal reports, one bystander pointed out, “I can’t eat an iPad.” Someone else asked Dudley, “When was the last time, sir, that you went grocery shopping?”
Prices are indeed going up on things we need. As an April 5 story in The Washington Post explained, “it’s not computers and cars that are getting more expensive, it’s gasoline, which is up 19 percent in the past year, ground beef, up 10 percent, and butter, up 23 percent.”
Yet these commodities don’t appear in the Federal Reserve’s formula for calculating inflation. So experts can point to statistics that say things are getting better, while drivers and shoppers perceive things are getting more difficult.
Meanwhile, federal regulations make it steadily more expensive to actually build things here, often leading companies to move overseas. This is in stark contrast to how the fortunes of yesteryear were built.
Andrew Carnegie used innovation and efficiency to revolutionize the steel industry. By doing so he made his plants more reliable and drove down consumer prices. He got rich, but everyone benefited. J.D. Rockefeller had the vision and took the risks to build businesses that took petroleum from the well to the gas tank and made money on each step. By doing so he turned oil from a quack cure into an industry that enabled America to grow and thrive.
It’s not clear that our government wants to encourage manufacturing these days.
“More Americans work for the government than work in construction, farming, fishing, forestry, manufacturing, mining and utilities combined,” Stephen Moore reported in the Wall Street Journal recently. “We have moved decisively from a nation of makers to a nation of takers.
Nearly half of the $2.2 trillion cost of state and local governments is the $1 trillion-a-year tab for pay and benefits of state and local employees.”
Yet even with all those government employees on the job, important things such as bridges and highways (generally a government responsibility) are falling into disrepair. “The original architects of such systems are now mostly dead, and we, their replacements, often lack their education and respect for civilization’s protocols,” historian Victor Davis Hanson wrote recently about California’s formerly-great freeway system. “The result is that millions of Americans are simply enjoying a system built for them by others which they are not quite able to use, repair, expand -- or understand.”
Hanson could just as well have been talking about our national power grid. It manages to provide enough juice to air condition every home and office building, even though those who designed it could never have imagined it would need to deliver so much electricity.
Meanwhile, as Steven Hayward writes, some are even working to remove a source of clean electricity. “Today’s environmental Progressives see dams as high on the list of humanity’s crimes against nature, and want to remove as many of them as they can.”
From the railroad barons through Bill Gates, most great American fortunes were based on building things people needed and used. The owner profited handsomely, but we all benefited, and continue to benefit, from the owner’s work.
Contrast that with the Bernie Madoff pyramid schemes and heavily subsidized industries that aren’t held to the same standards for providing value-added products and services at a price people (and societies) can afford. If we want to save American jobs we need to reward those who create them. We get what we pay for.