Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Editorial: Let us make it simple for you

"At times the editorials that appear in this space have received criticism for being too simplistic. We call them logical," says the unnamed Courier editor today, simultaneously expressing cocky smugness and deep insecurity about his ideas in this new world of instant and often relentless online backtalk. It's a pity he won't work harder to base his opinions in defensible reality.

(Note to Ed.: it's not that the commenters hate you, man, it's that you just aren't doing enough homework or thinking these things through.)

He professes a value on logic, then falls into the easiest logical fallacy, the false premise. Build your argument on sand and, no matter how carefully you follow the rules of engineering, it falls apart. This is freshman stuff.

Here it is: "States across this nation are struggling with deficits that are either the result of overspending in good years or revenue shortfalls because of the recession, or both." He states this as fact, but it is unadulterated, fact-free political spin.

State budget deficits themselves are pretty simple: revenues do not rise to meet projections, so you can't afford what you planned to buy. The why is much more complex. In Arizona's case, our Legislatures (and, to a lesser extent, we voters) have made it increasingly difficult to maintain a stable financial base for government services.

This has come about over decades of misrule based on a short-sighted ideology that despises taxes and pays only lip-service to good governance, selling us on simple ideas that sound sensible on the surface but prove to be stupid and counterproductive. Need examples?

The balanced-budget requirement. Requiring that expenditures match revenues in a given fiscal year means that the state cannot rationally undertake any long-term capital project, cannot put money aside in the fat times for use in the thin ones, and cannot borrow to cover unforeseen shortfalls. In other words, it cannot use any of the standard fiscal tools any normal business or household uses to moderate the effects of transient change or invest for the future.

Tax-cut fever. Persons suffering from this highly contagious malady see any surplus government revenue as a refund check for themselves. They make it far easier to reduce taxes than raise them, building in a structural spiral to the bottom. For them, taxes are always too high, no matter how low they fall in real terms.

Competing for industry on tax rates. Our legislators are widely bought into the idea that reducing tax obligations on the new businesses that they happen to like will cause them to flock here and set up shop. There are a dozen things wrong with this notion, but the bottom line is that it's just not true -- ask a manager of a large business about the criteria for locating a new operation, and state tax rates won't be in the top five -- and it doesn't work. It only reduces the state revenue stream, irrevocably.

Scrimping on education. Just as the most important factor for a successful society is smart citizens, the most important factor for successful business is skilled human resources. Our education spending, by far the largest component of the state budget, is essentially direct investment for our current and future prosperity. There's no substitute for good education, and there's no second chance to be seven years old. Our education spending is meager and ineffective by any standard you care to choose. Cutting it further when times are hard is tantamount to me cutting off my leg because I'm feeling hungry.

Resisting the inevitable. Like most people, our legislators are suspicious of the new and like what they're used to. In the wild it's a survival trait, but in a rapidly changing, complex world, it's anti-survival. The inability to see beyond the status quo prevents us from moving with the world rather than against it. This is as true for energy policy as it is for education or immigration policy. Our Legislature is right now doing its best to turn the clock back a hundred years. It will not work.

Warmongering. Armed conflict is expensive, and should never be undertaken lightly, whether it's in a foreign land or along our southern border. We Americans seem to have made a habit of picking pointless fights and wasting obscene amounts of money only to make ever more enemies. This, above all, is something we cannot afford.

Every dollar that our Legislature has collected as revenue or allocated to programs over the years was considered necessary by a majority of lawmakers. Broad-brushing this as "overspending" is thoughtless and unfair, and it undermines our political system. Was it all smart? Of course not, nor have the outcomes always lived up to the theory. But most legislators and governors have believed it to be the best they could do at the time, and most of them have been Republicans. Don't accept the editor's cheap shot at a certain former governor from the other party.

The editor's five-point plan for fiscal solvency lists some eminently sensible ways for an individual to act, but as public policy it's laughable, as idealistic and wrong as any sophomore's libertarian rant. Simple, sure. Useful? Worse than useless. Logical? Hardly.

If we're to have stable prosperity at any point in the future, we have to dig in and do the hard, crappy foundation work. We have to act like adults, invest heavy and long in education and health, and quit spending money and energy on frivolities like racism, gay-bashing, trying to control women's bodies, and flouting our obligations as members of this federal republic. By all means expect high value for your tax dollars,  but don't shortchange a kindergartner's ability to read just so you can have another double mocha latte.


Zig E. said...

Well Steve I agree completely you. As to why things are the way they are your next post points right too it. IGNORANCE ! This state makes a growth industry out of it. Just look at our currant crop of legislators. On a side note I listen to your show with Lucy Mason. Is it me or is she slowly showing signs of breaking out from the typical mind set of her party ? If she is and it's only due to the fact that she's not in office anymore then that highlights the problem. Maybe there will be some good to come out of the tea-baggers - they might just break the Republican party into.

Steven Ayres said...

Thanks, Zig. I think Lucy's been pretty consistent in her policy positions over the years, albeit evolving slowly as she's learned more about the issues. The party, on the other hand, has moved rapidly away from her. Obviously now that she's out of office she has more freedom to speak plainly -- bluntness gets nothing done in politics -- but her feelings haven't changed. (And, just for the record, she's still being painfully polite in public.)

Zig E. said...

Yes I have meet her and her husband a couple of times and she is very polite and easy to talk to. Depending on the setting I imagine.
For some reason the Republican party gets hijacked rather often. The religious right and moral "majority", the neo-cons, and now the tea-set. One of the reasons I left it 30 some years ago.