It's becoming clearer than ever that the great fault line in current American politics divides those with contrasting, clashing views on government spending.
On one side are those who think that public expenditures - with the money coming from taxpayers - can be worthwhile and legitimate even when they're to some degree discretionary. In opposition are those who think that the spending of tax revenues is justified only by necessity, defined more strictly than not.
It's easy to get tangled up right there. A police force, or an army, is necessary. But when it comes to resources, how close to the margin of adequacy must the police force operate? Some might be inclined to err on the side of generosity when public safety or national security is at stake. But what about when the stakes involve the quality of our public schools or universities?
If you recognize yourself among those who want to see your town or state or country be proactive about channeling public funds into areas that help make people's lives safer, cleaner, more full of opportunity, then President Obama's call for investment no doubt rings right and true.
If you gravitate instead toward the position succinctly expressed by U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell - "Investment as you know is a Latin term for Washington spending" - then there might be a tea party rally in your future.
Republicans, or conservatives of any stripe, of course know better than to belittle the concept of investment in general. It's the hallowed principle by which businesses take root and expand, and by which individuals hope to grow their assets.
It embodies competition for capital - may the smartest ideas and hardest workers win - and the willingness to take risks, along with the savvy to avoid throwing money out the window.
What bugs these conservatives is investment with public funds - when the government uses its power to tax essentially to raise capital and when there is no meaningful element of personal financial risk.
They are chapped by the thought that beneficiaries of the investment may be people whose own contribution, via taxes, was insignificant. Or perhaps the beneficiaries, via jobs or political advantage, are people (officeholders and bureaucrats) who themselves are making the investment decisions.
It's the old "I don't use it so why should I pay for it" attitude. And then there's the whole line of thinking that sees an Obama-style government (i.e., run by Democrats) as a tax-devouring political machine chiefly concerned with spreading money around to ingratiate itself with enough voters so as to perpetuate its own existence.
Can't say it's never been done. Chicago is a handy point of reference. But the GOP critique also can be viewed as a self-serving rationale for hiding behind the tree when the tax collector comes calling. And for bad-mouthing the motives of the other party, where the belief in careful public investments - calibrated to the tax burdens that people reasonably could be expected to bear - is sincere and well-founded.
In his State of the Union speech, Obama invoked what he hoped would be a "Sputnik moment," hearkening to the glory days of the space race. There was no inherent advantage to Americans being first on the moon, but for many reasons the tax-funded space program was squarely in the national interest.
The spirit behind the president's call to invest in science, technology, education and infrastructure is similar. There are lines not to be crossed in terms of decisions best made by the private sector - whether to back certain products, for instance. But the underlying investment principle, that outlays in the near term bring dividends in the long term, still applies.
In North Carolina, grappling with aftershocks of the same recession that has bedeviled Washington and the entire country, the state budget will have to be balanced in the face of shriveled revenues. Everyone knows that spending cuts loom large.
Still, the investment concept comes into play. Will programs and services that are key to the state's attractiveness as a place to live and do business be sacrificed?
Republican lawmakers now riding tall have vowed to fix the budget mess with vigorous whacks at spending - no new taxes. That could put them in the position of a homeowner who is too frugal to fix a leaky roof. The integrity of the whole structure - think public schools, universities, anti-pollution efforts, the justice system - could be threatened.
Over-taxation can be a wet blanket on the economy, no doubt. But toeing the low-tax, limited-government line can diminish our economic prospects as well, especially if it means shrunken horizons for poorly educated young people.
Those who will make the crucial budget calls will hear the cries from the tea partyers and the business types who helped swing the last election: Slash spending! Cut our taxes! Make government smaller! The question to keep in mind is, do those demands reflect the overall public interest, or the interests of a few for whom the notion of doing their fair share scarcely even registers?