Saturday, May 19, 2007

Why I Don’t Support Sayre (or Emmett Hanger, for that matter)

Recently, SWAC Girl (Lynn Mitchell) blogged at length about why she was supporting Scott Sayre against incumbent Emmett Hanger for the Republican nomination for State Senator from the 24th District. Although I disagree with her conclusions, I have to give her credit for a thoughtful piece that didn’t depend on attacking either Senator Hanger or his supporters, or his suspected supporters (a tactic that some of her SWAC Reactionary colleagues employ and that she herself has been known to put to good use as well). It was a good example of responsible blogging, in my opinion.

But as I say, I disagree with much of what she had to say.

Her argument begins with the assertion that she favors fiscal responsibility in government. That, it seems to me, is a bit like saying she favors walking upright on two legs, or breathing air. Is there anyone who doesn’t favor fiscal responsibility in government? Republicans like to accuse Democrats of being “tax and spend liberals,” but that’s always been nonsense and in any case doesn’t preclude fiscal responsibility. Fiscal responsibility is living within your means and Republicans tend to forget (or deny) that it was Democratic President Bill Clinton who was the most fiscally responsible of recent Presidents, measured by the erasure of the budget deficit, the creation of surplus, and the beginnings of a program to reduce the national debt. Talk about fiscal responsibility! And if you want to talk about the opposite, fiscal irresponsibility, Exhibit A is George W. Bush, beloved of Republicans, who has saddled us again with mountain debt and is throwing away billions (see the exact total in the counter at upper right) on a war that should never have started in the first place. So I’m surprised to see Mitchell complain about the relatively light tax burden in Virginia when the waste at the federal level, created by Bush, threatens to bankrupt the country. (She also states the obvious that County Government cannot fund ever project that is proposed to them, and I would suggest that there is no resident of Augusta County who thinks otherwise.)

Mitchell goes on to compare a government’s budget to the family budget as a way of making her case that government should not overspend. Whether or not the analogy is apt, the argument actually works against her position. Many, if not most, families own a home and at least one car. Many, if not most, of those big ticket items are purchased with debt, a mortgage and a car loan. You can argue—and I would—that carrying credit card debt is a dangerous road for a family, but it’s hard to worry much about mortgages, which support the ownership of a significant investment, or car loans, which are generally low interest and support ownership of what is for most people in our area a necessity. For other items, luxury items or even food and clothing, fiscal responsibility suggests saving first before spending. How does this apply to government? Families with mortgages and car loans practice “deficit spending.” Governments can also, but Mitchell seems to be arguing that they should not, that they should only spend what they earn. She also seems to be saying that if they earn more than they need in one year they should return it to their “employers,” the citizens who pay taxes. And yet a fiscally responsible family that runs a surplus in one year is going to save that money for emergencies or for investments that will pay off in the long run, or that will improve their lives in some way. An addition to the house, perhaps, or a more efficient car. They don’t turn that money back to their employers.

The point here, I think, is that Republicans in general and certainly Mitchell in her blog post, mischaracterize government spending and they do it because they hate taxes. They hate sharing their money with anyone, for anyone other than themselves. I find this to be a very limited sense of community and, frankly, greedy. Money spent by government is not being flushed down the toilet (unless you’re George Bush, apparently). It’s not being handed out to anyone who asks for it, as Mitchell implies. Government should be (and generally is) spending money on things that have a return. That is, government spending isn’t really spending. It’s investment. Government builds roads because people need to travel on roads to conduct commerce and get to work and there is a benefit there that can be quantified. A road should not be built in the middle of nowhere because its return will be negligible, and a government that does that is wasteful and needs to be reined in. Expenditures for schools, for water, for environmental quality, for countless other services that government is involved in are actually investments that pay off over time. I have a degree in Public Administration and spent good deal of time examining how to evaluate projects quantitatively to see if they made sense. That’s what governments do.

But not all investments are wise investments and I suspect that is really where the discussion should lead us. The Grover Norquist disciples seem kind of silly to me. The question isn’t whether taxes are evil, as they seem to suggest, but which investments we want government to make. Clearly, reasonable people can disagree over what our priority investments should be and if we were speaking truthfully that’s what the debate would be about. Not taxes.

So on that score, Mitchell comes close to talking about priorities but even here she isn’t completely forthright. She uses as an example of misspent government funding the grants that the Blackfriars Playhouse/American Shakespeare Center receives. She admits that she’s never been to a play there (claiming that the tickets are too expensive), but that she doesn’t see why her tax dollars should be spent in this way for something she doesn’t use. Quarrels over government spending often revolve around spending for the arts and humanities, but I think the Blackfriars is a bad example for Mitchell to have chosen. First, she should probably admit that Shakespeare doesn’t do anything for her. There’s nothing wrong with that. Lots of people don’t care for Shakespeare. But the excuse that the tickets are too expensive doesn’t fly. Yes, regular tickets are more than triple that of a movie ticket, but there are pay-what-you-will performances that are, essentially, free. There are ways to get discounted tickets. I myself have seen several shows on free tickets from various sources, provided as a promotion by the theater. So if she were inclined to go she could go even if she didn’t want to pay. But the fact that she’s never been once in the 5 and a half years of the theater’s operation tells me she just isn’t interested. Which is fine. But it’s also interesting to note that the Blackfriars returns to the local economy in tourist revenues and additional taxes far more than the government grants it receives. As expenditures go, it is an outstanding investment for government, one that would make little sense for private sources of money to undertake. Because of the additional taxes generated, it’s even likely that Mitchell’s local tax burden is somewhat lessened because of the broader base, so there may in fact be a direct benefit to her that she can’t see. Even though she doesn’t like Shakespeare.

As I noted, Mitchell says that because she doesn’t use the theater, she doesn’t think her tax dollars should support it. It’s an attractive, but flawed, argument. There are also probably lots of roads in the county that she never uses, but should only the people who use them pay for them if they benefit the county as a whole? I’ve never once been to a county park. Or a county school (except to vote). Or any number of other facilities that tax dollars support. Would Mitchell eliminate them all? Would she turn them all private?

Perhaps. And that’s really the crux of this whole discussion and the reason I don’t support Sayre, or Hanger, or other Republicans. It is my belief that fairness and equity (not to mention efficiency) dictate that in some matters—not all, private enterprise works fine for most things—government should gather resources from the people to invest for the benefit of the people. That includes, in my opinion, investments in the arts, in libraries and in schools, to ensure that society has access to our shared culture without regard to ability to pay. We can disagree about exactly what our spending priorities are, but I think this is an important principle. Personally, I think SWAC Girl and her Reactionary buddies would benefit from a trip to Blacfriars. It might make them better citizens of the world.


Spank That Donkey said...

If you actually start posting like this in the future you can become a respected blog.

I am not trying to be a smart ass by saying that, but seriously compare your first 40 or so posts with this one.



Mosquito said...

If only SWAC Girl was held to the same standard....LOL...I've seen more trashing AND False information on her site than on any moserate or liberal blog site in VA.


Kevin said...

Awesome post!!

Spank That Donkey said...

Why don't you at least try and mask your hatred? SWAC GIRL does an outstanding job, and just because of that you throw very, very dull darts.