I was thinking about an essay I read in The New York TimesMagazine a week or so ago — one of those stories they print on next-to-the-last page where somebody tells about something that has happened in his or her life and what he or she has learned from it.
The most vivid story he told was about a time a man carrying his whole family in a van not only stopped to help him, but made sure he had something to eat, and then wouldn't take even a few dollars for his mighty labors.
And when the writer of the story asked him why he wouldn't take even a couple of bucks, the man said something like, today you; tomorrow me.
In other words, your trouble today could be my trouble tomorrow. So I help you today, hoping that when I am in trouble someone will help me.
Needless to say, I was thinking about this story as I watched the coverage of the tragedy in Japan. Our hearts and prayers go out to the millions affected by this.
But I was also thinking about this story as I thought about the ongoing budget battles in the U.S. You might know that we here at NPR are caught up in this because we do receive a small amount of federal funding, which has been placed under a particularly harsh light because of some poor decisions and comments by some former NPR executives.
Can I just tell you? I am not going to debate the merits of federal funding.
My opinion is not particularly relevant, and anyway if you just want to look up the numbers you can do so for yourself by going to the NPR home page, clicking the tab that says "about NPR" and then clicking on public radio finances, which breaks the whole thing down for you.
I'll just say that the amount NPR gets, even including that received by all the member stations, is, in relative terms, very small and the federal deficit is, in relative terms, very big, which says to me that there are compelling arguments on both sides of the question.
Now, what I want to talk about speaks to the argument that I keep hearing from people who both support and dislike NPR, which comes down to "support it because I like it, or cut the funding because I don't."
That strikes me as the least compelling argument about anything. Especially now, at a time when we as a country are about to make some very hard choices — or at least hard choices are upon us, whether we want to make them or not.
In a country as large and diverse as this one — in a country with vast global responsibilities — it seems to me that all of us are paying for things we don't use or might not even like.
Millions of people in this country don't eat meat, whether because of religious or other moral conviction or for reasons of health. But I don't hear lawmakers twisting themselves into a pretzel to allow such people to opt out of paying for agricultural subsidies, which support that industry.
Millions of people who have no children are paying large sums in taxes to educate other people's children, as well as to build bridges they will never drive across or maintain museums they will never visit.
In each case, the question should not be, do I want this? Do I like this? But in what ways does this support the common good?
I'll confess it's much easier to see the common good when it's something we like. (I personally think my favorite drink at Starbucks should be our national beverage.)
But it seems to me that the test of us — as a nation, and as a people — is whether we can at least try to evaluate the common good when it comes to things we don't like or believe in, or particularly want to do.
I am not naive. Politics is the means by which government happens, and our government was designed, in part, to facilitate negotiations between groups representing their own interests as they perceive them. But in a time when we need to think big thoughts — not just for ourselves but for the sake of the world — this I-got-mine-go-get-yours attitude is too small.
It strikes me that the guy with the rickety van who helped that writer change his tire and said today you; tomorrow me might be richer in wisdom than many of us with much nicer cars to show for it.