Rhymes with Yokel: Why Small Government is No Substitute for the Feds

Bankrupt this guy and....

The current financial mess and Congressional hissy fit have revived the grandest of American sports: ranting over taxes. It is the ultimate Straw Man debate, though. Nobody, and I mean nobody, actually likes to pay taxes. Lefties want to keep their dough just as much as the tempests from the Tea Party. As one of the former, let me make it clear that this lefty doesn’t like paying income tax, sales tax, excise tax, or backdoor levies such as vehicle registration fees, phone surcharges, or turnpike tolls. A particularly loathsome fee is the $1.40 I have to shell out for 14 miles of New Hampshire I drive on I-95 on my way to Ogunquit, Maine. Live free or die my ass–more like live like a freeloader off of money gouged from the Bay State.

That 14 miles is partly what this essay is about. Every time any sort of financial crunch hits, the collective reflex is to start ranting over federal taxes–as if these exist in a vacuum. The tax system is a big daisy chain–every dime you remove from the federal part of it is going to be assessed further down the line. If there are fewer dollars for the feds to give out for colleges, for example, state governments are pressured to come up with the scratch. If they can’t, they tell schools they have to raise their tuitions to erect new facilities, pay profs, or dole out financial aid. Students and their parents then go back to the feds and seek grants, but there are fewer of them, so they seek federal loans instead, only to find out that there’s less money for these as well. So they borrow money from banks, and what are interest rates but a tax under a different name? If you can’t relate to that example, look at what has happened to highway funding over the years. The interstates are rutted because the feds don’t have the money to rebuild them, the bridges are unsafe because cash-strapped states defer maintenance, and your street is filled with potholes because local government isn’t getting any help from the feds or the state. They only get money from one place: you! I now pay almost as much per month in property taxes as I paid for principle when I had a mortgage. My state sales tax has gone up 40%. I hate paying those things!

At the end of the day, though, it boils down to a single question: Which master do you wish to pay? And that’s where the most na├»ve of all tax debates takes place. Even the Tea Party thinks we need some services, so how do we fund them? This question is where the Loony Right and the Batshit Crazy Left meet–they both think small-is-beautiful decentralization is the way to go. In the abstract, rightwing libertarianism and leftwing anarchism sound really good. Let’s depend upon ourselves, or voluntarily associate with likeminded radically free individuals and live in a society beyond government. The first problem is that it’s all a bunch of romantic twaddle when put into practice, and the second is that it ignores the reality that we need big government more than we need small government.

...you're at this guy's mercy!
Spend enough time observing grassroots government and you’ll come to appreciate why local and yokel rhyme. I lost my romance for localism by observing the institution often upheld as the very model of democracy: town meetings. You have no idea how seriously out-of-touch people can be until you watch two grown men literally come to blows over whether or not to spend town money to dump a load of gravel on a washed out back road! Nor can you appreciate the depths of pettiness until you see half of a town vote to fire two reading teachers, put buckets under a leaky roof, and defund art, music, and all non-sports extracurricular activities rather than raise property taxes by .5%. Think I exaggerate? Look at local schools–firmly under the thumb of local control. To maintain certification, public schools must meet (ridiculously low) state standards and the rest of a child’s educational experience is at the mercy of local school boards and taxpayers. In the 1980s I taught in a Vermont district in which texts were expected to last 15-20 years. (Try teaching anthropology with a book printed in 1964!) Five miles away, in IBM-enriched Essex Junction, schools spent more each year on videotapes than my district spent in five for textbooks. Come to Massachusetts and walk the halls of the new school in tony Newton. Then take a drive to Holyoke High. Still think local control is a wonderfully democratic ideal?

Education is a big job–too big to be left to the whims, budgets, and vendettas of locals. We really hate Big Government, right? Tell me how well local government and private charities handled the Great Depression. Anyone who wants to paint Franklin Roosevelt as a communist had better be prepared to explain how the nation was better off under Hoover than under New Deal. But let’s forget ancient history. Tell me what would have happened without federal presence during the Deepwater Horizon spill, Hurricane Katrina, or Hurricane Sandy. Each of those could/should have been handled better, but while you’re spilling anti-FEMA bile, tell me who else had the resources even to attempt tackling problems of this magnitude. While you’re at it, convince me that the last recession wouldn’t have been much, much worse had it not been for the American Recovery and Investment Act. Though I didn’t care for the bailouts, many economists argue that the Troubled Asset Relief Program staved off a serious depression. We should debate how tax money gets spent, but we again come back to scale. Who was going to take on the collapsing economy, your local bank? If not the feds, who will fund vet hospitals, elder care, energy development, the NIH, the Centers for Disease Control, consumer safety, or the military? (The very thought of the military makes the tax-hating right giddy!) Let’s face it, without the feds, local governments would sell every inch of the National Park System to developers.

We all hate taxes, but don’t confuse what you like with what you need to do. And don’t be a yokel.  

No comments: