How Boston Tragedy Highlights the Importance of Public Services

04/17/2013 08:17 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2013

The carnage that ensued in Boston this week does not need to be described in words since the numbers speak horrifying volumes in themselves: 3 dead, including a child, more than 170 injured, dozens dismembered, and a whole nation traumatized by the shock of violence.

The only thing hopeful in all this was the amazing display of selflessness, heroism, and compassion displayed by the runners, spectators, and countless other Bostonians who literally jumped to the rescue of their fellow citizens. It was a sight that made me proud to be American.

But public courage notwithstanding, it is also important to recognize that no tragedy like this could have been addressed or people's lives saved without a massive concerted effort by the first responders: the police, the paramedics, the firemen, the doctors, the nurses, and eventually, the national guard. All these members of our public infrastructure were critical to saving all those who could be saved and preventing the tragedy from escalating further. Any delays, kinks, or shortfalls in this important machine would almost certainly have resulted in greater loss.

We should remember this when we consider the fiscal debates going on in our country right now, and when some of our politicians talk blithely about 'deficit reduction' and 'fiscal responsibility'. Such phrases might sound innocuous and even patriotic but in reality they are like bombs themselves. They make austerity sound clinical and remote, as if it is some magic textbook measure that will fix our economic problems without serious consequences in the real world.

But it does have consequences, and they can be devastating. Imagine how much worse things would have been had the Boston Police Department not had enough cops to deploy to the scene of the attack, had there not been enough paramedics to help people who were immobilized, had there not been enough ambulances to get those people to hospitals in time, had there not been enough beds in the hospitals, had fewer doctors been available to treat injuries before they got irreversibly infected, and had the hospitals not had sufficient medical supplies to treat everyone?

And what if there had been more explosives?

These are not idle questions. We live in a dangerous time when people can make explosives out of household items from formulas on the Internet, when extremist groups (whether they be foreign or domestic) are well-funded, well-armed, and have become adept at exploiting the very freedom we represent to hurt us. Sure, there have always been people out there willing to kill innocent civilians, but now those people have more means to do a lot more damage than ever before.

The only defense we have against such people is to have a robust public infrastructure that can prevent attacks whenever possible and, equally importantly, to respond effectively when something does happen. I am not just talking about cops and paramedics either - I am talking about everything. Things only work efficiently when all the links in the chain - the first responders, the supplies, the vehicles, the roads that carry those vehicles, the buildings that house vital medical and security facilities, the government employees who provide logistical support to the whole enterprise, and many other elements - are in place, strong, and functioning properly.

All this requires sizable public funding and that in turn requires taxes, whether we like it or not.

And while this discussion may currently be in the context of a violent tragedy, the harmful effects of austerity span a much wider arena of misery that Americans will suffer as a result of kneejerk budget cuts. This includes senior citizens, disabled people, children, and poor people who require assistance on many fronts every single day. These people and their struggles are also important and their welfare should not be forgotten when deciding what public services we can afford to cut.

We cannot turn back time for Boston but we can learn from what happened, and use it to ensure that we continue to do what is right and necessary for the well-being of all Americans with compassion, generosity, and wisdom. This incident is the most compelling argument against austerity that there can be, and we would be crazy to ignore it.

SANJAY SANGHOEE is a political and business commentator. He has worked at leading investment banks as well as at a multi-billion dollar hedge fund. He has an MBA from Columbia Business School and is the author of the financial thriller "Merger" (available below) which Chicago Tribune called "Timely, Gripping, and Original". Follow him on Twitter and Facebook (Candid Politics & Business Blogs).