Capitals around the country are rife with facile rants about cutting government, when the real task is balancing budgets.
Will leaders do the hard work of applying shared principles to balance their budgets or will they use “financial exigency” to achieve their own ideological ends? Socially deaf ideologues, obsessed with their own political and religious beliefs, are already gaming the stressed system to try and rid society of imagined ills like immigrants, gays, abortions, unions, regulations and minimum wage. These are many of the same people who, prior to the recent greed-driven economic downturn, convinced voters and politicians that regulation would impede prosperity, which then, in a naïve, over-consuming market, ended prosperity.
Reasonable people can agree that for any enterprise to subsist, revenues must match or exceed expenses. Businesses respond by cutting costs. Non-profits hone missions and programs to match revenues. Government is still dithering in a thicket of politics.
Up to now, weak politicians have kicked the ball down the road to enhance re-electoral opportunity. Inexperienced leaders will promote “across the board cuts,” because strategic cuts are harder, even though they enhance the enterprise and balance the budget.
But the crisis is here and now, and solving it will require leaders to re-engage citizens in a discussion about ethics, priorities, and the question, “What should government do?”
I believe government must ensure educational opportunity for all; build and maintain infrastructure; and regulate industry and the economy with a competitive eye. It must maintain a social safety net for those who have fallen out of the economy or can’t find their way in. It must preserve its environment, its built and working landscapes and its cultural heritage. It should tax its citizens fairly; organize defense, and ensure a system of equal justice. It must be transparent and open to its citizens. The rest is noise and waste.
The question of whether to raise revenue or reduce expenses is the wrong question. We’ll need to do both to restore equilibrium after excess. Governor Shumlin will need to articulate and lead. Shoot-from-the-hip statements not based in material fact will only fuel ignorant responses by the electorate and necessitate backpedaling.
We need all our leaders to forge consensus on priorities and goals, and on how we measure and communicate their progress to those who pay for it in taxes.
Here in Vermont we need our leaders to bring any new revenues in line with a streamlined enterprise.
We need to listen to and be influenced, but not governed by, both the wealthy and powerful and the poor and disadvantaged. We need to constantly revisit the organizing principles of government.
Finally, we must make decisions based on both substantive data and human experience. Just as the best of science, history and art inform our decisions, so do both data and story. If we select anecdotes or, worse, make up facts to suit or ends, we will only distort our decision-making further and deceive ourselves into more leadership stasis and an even more polarized society.