Tax and Spend

Originally posted Thursday, October 28, 2004:

You always know that a Republican candidate has run out of things to say about his opponent–it doesn’t matter whether it’s another Republican in a primary election or a Democrat in a final election–when he calls the opponent a “tax and spend liberal.” These are the magic incantation of Republican politics, and they’re supposed to make voters avoid the epithet’s target like radioactive waste.

The epithet can be used in other grammatical constructions: “All Senator Snort has done in office is tax and spend”; “For the past four (two, six) years, he’s been over there in Washington (Columbus, City Hall), taxing and spending your hard-earned dollars.” It’s the ketchup of political invective–it goes on anything. “Tax and spend” is a magical incantation; no epithet thought up by Democrats has quite the same mojo.

At the same time, it’s a little silly. After all, the unique and defining characteristic of government is that it taxes; nobody else can do that. And once you’ve taxed people, you pretty much have to spend the revenues on something; taxpayers tend to rebel when governments just collect their money and store it in warehouses.

So let’s be clear, what governments do is “tax and spend.” Without taxing and spending, you don’t have a government. Liberals and conservatives both do it; Republicans and Democrats both do it. President Bush has done it, and John Kerry will do it once he’s elected.

I bring this up because we use political labels far too often. Right and left, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat, pro-choice and pro-life–part of our handicap in state and national politics today is the overuse of simplistic labels. (Fortunately, the labels are harder to use in municipal politics, so they’ve never really caught on there.)

(Digression alert: personal reference coming.)

A few friends have noted that I seem to be exceptionally motivated in this campaign, and they’re right: I haven’t been this excited about a presidential election since forty years ago, when as a high school student I was doing volunteer work for the campaign of . . . Barry Goldwater. (This is when the reader says, “Barry Goldwater? Wasn’t he that conservative Republican senator from Arizona, somewhere to the right of Vlad the Impaler? How does this joker support John Kerry, that tax-and-spend liberal?” But Hillary Clinton started political life as a Goldwater Republican too: that’s why she and I are so tight.)

Well, my candidate now is quite different from my candidate then; politics have changed, and so has our country. But now as then, I am disturbed and frightened at the direction in which our country is going. My own political odyssey over those years has taught me a disrespect for political labels.

(Personal reference over; reading can safely continue here.)

The notion that you can sum up a person’s political beliefs in a simple label is ludicrously simplistic. In general, liberals are supposed to favor governmental interventions to correct societal problems; conservatives are supposed to favor economic policies that increase profits. Liberals are supposed to help the poor; conservatives are supposed to protect the rich. Both, of course, claim to be the savior of the middle class. But of course, there are social, economic, foreign policy, and civil rights liberals and conservatives; trying to track one’s beliefs in all four seems unfulfilling.

The most common break between the two philosophies concerns the role of government in private enterprise: since resources have to be allocated somehow, liberals favor government involvement in that allocation, while conservatives favor leaving it up to private business and markets. Like most idealogues, both liberals and conservatives take their philosophies on faith with very little empirical evidence; neither one has very good data to support its own pure ideology.

Ordinary people distrust ideology instinctively; but ordinary people aren’t the ones who make campaign donations. So in order to be nominated, most candidates have to persuade their own parties that they have the right beliefs, while simultaneously convincing those same supporters that they can appeal just enough to moderates to get their votes and be elected.

So, in this campaign, as Bush campaign ads trot out that tired “liberal” epithet, what should undecided voters do? I believe they would do well to realize that classic American liberalism is essentially dead. Most Democrats accepted Bill Clinton’s declaration that “the era of big government is over,” and liberals recognize just as much as conservatives that a strong defense is essential to our security.

I respect conservatism: it’s is a proud and honorable political ideology that values responsibility, individual initiative, and self-reliance. What I don’t accept is fake conservatism, and today’s conservatives, including the President, are mostly fakes. Passing debt onto our children isn’t good financial policy; inadequately staffing and supplying our military isn’t good defense; and pushing difficult economic decisions like Social Security reform into future administrations isn’t good planning.

Ignore the labels, especially when candidates use them against each other.

With God on Our Side

Originally posted Wednesday, October 27, 2004:

I don’t agree with many things said by Patrick J. Buchanan; but twelve years ago, as Americans prepared to elect Bill Clinton as President, this most conservative of American observers made an observation that was exactly right. “As polarized as we have ever been,” he wrote, “we Americans are locked in a cultural war for the soul of our country.” It was true then, and it may be even truer as we turn the corner and head into this election week.

The President makes no apologies for his born-again Christian beliefs, and social conservatives claim God on their side as they do battle with the forces of secular society.

I believe that people of faith have every right to bring their faith into the marketplace of civic ideas. I’m one of them. And yet, few trends terrify me more than the idea of involving religion in government.

We have seen in the past twenty years the harm done to emerging and progressive societies by ayatollahs and mullahs. Some triumphal Christians suggest that these excesses are unique to Muslim fundamentalism; nothing could be further from the truth. At the heart of these excesses are clearly identifiable habits of mind: the tendency to view life in absolutes; the assumption of infallible wisdom that comes from on high; the refusal to seek common ground; and the damning of opposition as heretical, immoral, or godless.

Religion is the subtext of our nation’s political life. America’s religious right is fond of saying that America was founded as a Christian country. Actually, we’re a good deal more conflicted than that. Clearly, most of our early settlers were Christian, as were the countries from which they came. Many of them came to this country in search of religious freedom, and then, once established in their respective colonies, started denying it to anyone who didn’t share their precise set of religious convictions. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the first amendment leads off the Bill of Rights by guaranteeing freedom of religion; nor should we be surprised that states and cities all over the country enacted blue laws that limit what can be done on the Sabbath.

Buchanan despaired of every reaching any common ground in the Cultural War; but in a recent column in the New York Times, David Brooks point out that there is still a center in American politics. I’m trying to find it. Here are some thoughts.

First, seek humility and avoid arrogance. Catholics last week heard Luke’s story of the pharisee who prays a self-congratulatory prayer thanking God that he is not like other men. The religious right are the Pharisees of our time.

Second, use honest language and avoid distortion. Nobody favors abortion itself. If a candidate’s position is that all human life is sacred, that the death penalty should be abolished, that the nation should wage war only in self-defense, and that abortion is homicide, then that candidate can claim to be pro-life. Neither of the candidates for President is pro-life. Neither the religious right nor the Bush campaign is pro-life; they’re simply against abortion rights. It’s correct to say that Kerry’s campaign favors abortion rights; it’s inflammatory to charge that it favors abortion itself.

Third, use religious authority responsibly. Isaiah (40:13) asks, “Who has known the mind of God?” Eleven of America’s 400 Catholic bishops believe they do, and have stated that they would deny Communion to Catholics who support Kerry’s candidacy. They make a mockery of our religion and the dignity of their position. Regrettably, the secular press has exaggerated that minority position so that it sounds like a groundswell.

Fourth, don’t claim exclusive use of labels. I’m tired of Christians who appropriate that label only for their own interpretation of Christianity. And within Catholicism, we have our own faction that does the same thing with the label “Catholic.” If you want a religious label that you control, start your own church.

Fifth, respect differences. The fact that you think Harry Potter is satanic doesn’t mean you have the right to prevent other children from reading it. The fact that you want your children to believe that babies come from Wal-Mart doesn’t mean you have the right to deny comprehensive sex education to the children of others.

Sixth, get the facts straight. As I noted in a previous blog, public education in America started in a Puritan colony as a way to make sure than children could read the Bible and be protected from“that old deluder, Satan.” It has evolved into a nonsectarian educational system in which children can pray but not be compelled to pray and can study religious texts in literature classes but not in science classes. Some of them pray pretty regularly, but they do so on their own initiative and not because the school directs them to. The same Bill of Rights that keeps public schools from leading prayer bars them from preventing it. Yet I see all sorts of articles saying that “children can’t pray in public schools.”

I can’t support President Bush because he, and the people around him, have succeeded in turning faith into a political vice. I don’t doubt the sincerity of their beliefs; what I oppose is their excesses. The broad middle of American belief needs to reject the religious right, and one way to do that is by electing John Kerry.

Hinckley buzzards

Originally posted Tuesday, October 26, 2004:

I have been sending these articles to a rather diverse group living all over the country, and so
far I’ve dealt only with national matters. However, it’s probably time to deal with some Ohio issues. The rest of you can take a break if you like.

Here in northeastern Ohio, we have a wonderful natural phenomenon that never fails to bring out the TV crews. Every year on the 15th of March, turkey vultures–buzzards–return to the Hinckley reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks. Buzzards are ugly birds, so we shouldn’t be surprised that, while a pretty song was written about the swallows’ annual return to San Juan Capistrano later in March, nobody writes songs about buzzard love.

The TV crews are fond of saying that it’s a mystery why the buzzards come back every year; but it’s not hard to figure out. They come back to Ohio every year because what buzzards do is to circle high in the sky above things that are dying; and Ohio is on life support. Experts differ on what started our decline, but there’s pretty good consensus on the status quo.

1) Ohio’s population is getting poorer, older, and dumber. Incomes declined between 1990 and 2000, and our young people–particularly those with college educations–leave the state in record numbers. Since 2000, the loss of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs made matters worse. The population left behind is more likely to need medical care, prisons, and welfare.

2) Everybody agrees that part of the solution is better education, but nobody seems to have a clue how to achieve it. With our richest school systems spending about a dollar for every quarter available to our poorest schools, the state has a serious equity problem. Since 1992, the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled four times in the DeRolph v. State of Ohio case that Ohio’s school funding system is unconstitutional. Last year, in their final DeRolph ruling, they said that it was still unconstitutional, told the legislature to fix it–and then threw up their hands and gave up jurisdiction over the case.

3) The major target of DeRolph is a school system that depends on local property taxes to raise the major part of school district funds. In its rulings, the Court directed the General assembly to find a way to fund public schools that ended the dependency on local property taxes; today, school funding is as dependent on property taxes as ever. In the November 2 election, 44% of Ohio’s school districts have at least one tax issue before the voters; fifteen have more than one. Speaking of education-funding inequities, author Jonathan Kozol recently said, “Ohio is, perhaps, the most shameful example in the nation. The entire system is archaic, undemocratic and ultimately unfixable.”

4) Most honest observers acknowledge that in order to improve the system, additional funding must be found. But all observers–honest or not–remember that the way Democrats became the minority party in Ohio was by raising taxes. So if you listen carefully, the background noise of Ohio politics is the waffling of politicians of both parties as they try to say, without sounding silly, that they’ll somehow find new money without actually raising it.

5) Meanwhile, Ohio provides more tax dollars for nonpublic schools than any other state in the nation. Those tax dollars fund vouchers for Cleveland students and a wide variety of charter schools, including for-profit charters and online charter schools in which the students never actually meet their teachers.

6) So far, I’ve been talking about Ohio’s K-12 school systems; our support for higher education is far worse. Studies generally indicate that Ohio’s funding of its public colleges and universities is ranks 49th among the states. Our percentage of college graduates is among the lowest of industrialized states, and compared with other states, we make it more expensive for our citizens to get degrees.

7) Ohio needs to reform its business tax system: Ohio’s tax structure is archaic, unfair, complicated, and counterproductive. According to a recent series in The Plain Dealer, Ohio’s largest newspaper, businesses frequently choose not to locate in Ohio because our business taxes are among the highest in the country. To hear the business lobby tell it, they can’t make a nickel, our highways are paved with silver, and our schools made of marble. They aren’t, of course, because legislators and businesses have enacted a thicket of exceptions: if a company hires the right tax lawyers, it can pay no business taxes at all. The net result is that Ohio businesses typically pay about average taxes, but they have to go through all sorts of corporate contortions to take advantages of the various loopholes that have been built in to the system. What a deal: businesses hate us, and we still get mediocre revenue.

8) Even for people of great good will, finding a solution to such complicated problems would take tremendous legislative skill. Ohio’s legislators generally don’t have it. One reason is that in 1992, Republican leaders persuaded voters to impose term limits on legislators. Legislators in Ohio can’t hold their jobs longer than eight years, so they’re constantly jockeying for new positions and their turnover rate is incredible. More important, they aren’t on the job long enough to learn complicated subjects like school finance or business tax law. Generally they just give up and either wait for the next political job or get ready to leave politics and go back to their careers.

9) If it’s possible, things are made even worse by a group of right-wingers whom even mainstream Republicans call the Caveman Caucus. While the state’s economy circles the drain, this group pushes for creationism in the public schools, concealed weapons carry, a “defense of marriage act,” and (as if that weren’t enough) a constitutional amendment (Issue 1) that, if passed, will make it illegal for any public employer to offer benefits to unmarried couples.

10) The net result is that progressive businesses that have a chance of locating anywhere see a state with unfair business taxes, a troubled educational system, a shrinking supply of educated workers, regressive laws, and a neanderthal legislature, and locate elsewhere. The businesses that remain consist disproportionately of the ones you don’t want to have.

11) Ohio’s only hope is the wholesale replacement of its elected officials. The only force powerful enough to make that happen is the rage of an aroused electorate. I do see some signs of increasing public alarm, but things may have to get significantly worse before they’ll get better. Since the Republicans have essentially owned the state for the past fifteen years, the simplest way to register outrage is to vote Democratic on all the downticket contests.

Ohio’s legislators and governor have a lot of issues to work on, but only one–education–has the potential to lift the state out of its quagmire. They evidently aren’t motivated to improve the situation. One solution would be to elect a Supreme Court that would enforce its previous rulings. I’m starting by voting for C. Ellen Connally for Chief Justice, since incumbent Thomas Moyer voted against all four DeRolph rulings. I’ll vote to re-elect Justice Paul E. Peiffer, a DeRolph supporter who is running unopposed. I’ll pick William O’Neill to replace Terrence O’Donnell and Nancy Fuerst over Judith Lanzinger.

Ohio is a wonderful place to live, with an incredibly diverse population, a proud history, breathtaking scenery, valuable natural resources, and a terrific location. But if we don’t work out some very serious problems, we may have to remind the last Ohioan leaving to turn out the lights.