It was the fall of 1981. The United States was coming out of a recession. Ronald Reagan had been president since January. Among his first acts in the White House had been to dramatically cut spending for social programs.
And the woman sitting next to me on an airplane was not happy about it.
I was sitting on the aisle, and she had the window. She worked for an organization called Camp Fire Girls, now called Camp Fire USA, and she couldn't stand Ronald Reagan. I wanted to know why. She described an after-school program she ran that served hundreds of poor children. I remember thinking then that it sounded like a worthwhile endeavor. The program had received about $100,000—almost its entire budget—from the federal government. Reagan had eliminated that funding.
In 1981 I was a young man whose thinking was in a state of transition. In 1976 I had voted for Jimmy Carter, but in 1980 I pulled the lever for Reagan, in part because I thought Carter had shown general incompetency regarding economic matters. I had graduated from college in 1980, in the midst of the Carter Recession. I then spent more than a year in a series of part-time and temporary jobs, all the while looking for full-time employment. I had voted for Reagan not so much because I was a conscious part of the "Reagan Revolution," but because—like many who voted for Barack Obama in 2008—I was hoping for change.
So when this Camp Fire Girl leader started railing against Reagan, I offered no defense. "That's terrible," I said. "Sorry that program got eliminated. What do you do now?"
"Oh," she said. "I still run the program."
I was confused. "I thought you said Reagan eliminated the program," I said.
"We weren't going to give him the satisfaction," she said defiantly. "So we started raising money."
She described how local corporations pitched in. Plus, lots of individuals. They held fund-raisers. They even asked the parents whose daughters participated in the program to pay a little, to give them a stake in what was being accomplished. As she told this story, I could hear the excitement and pride rising in her voice. She said the after-school program now had a budget of almost $250,000, more twice what the federal government had cut. It was serving more girls than ever. In fact, she said she was on her way to speak at a conference to discuss the program's success.
"Well," I said, emboldened by her story to make a feeble defense, "it sounds like Ronald Reagan was the best thing that ever happened to that program."
She became indignant, pointing out how many more students they could be serving with the government money plus all this new money.
"Yes, but would you have gone after the new money if you didn't have to?" I asked. "Didn't those cuts provide the motivation?"
"We were planning to start raising money anyway," she affirmed. "Those cuts had nothing to do with it."
I was unconvinced. I was raised in the South, where rural wisdom teaches that "fixin' to do something" and actually doing it are two different things. In fact, there's an old riddle that goes like this: Q: There's five frogs on a log and one of them decides to jump. How many frogs are left? A: Five. Because deciding to jump ain't the same as actually jumping.
Today I am more convinced than ever that Reagan's cuts likely had everything to do with that woman and her colleagues finding the motivation to go out and find the money. But more than that, those cuts—and what happened next—gave all involved in the process a sense of dignity, empowerment, and self-determination. I could clearly hear it in this woman's story and in the very tone of her voice, though ironically she could not.
Over the years I have often thought about this chance encounter on an airplane, and today I consider that meeting as the day I became a fiscal conservative. It's the day I discovered that economics is not just about math; it's about motivation. Debits, credits, ledgers, and spreadsheets matter, but so do determination and leadership. Sound, moral economic policy must take the foibles and folly of a fallen human nature into account, and must have human dignity—an understanding that we are all made in the image of God—as its goal. It took me years to be able to describe that lesson in this way, but I am convinced that it was on that day in 1981 that I first learned it.
All these years later, I have no idea where that Camp Fire Girl is, but if I did I might ask her to sit around the campfire with me and eat a s'more (if they still do that sort of thing) so I could shake her hand and say "thank you."