The choice is simple, writes
Paul Krugman. It is "between asking the richest 2 percent or so of Americans to go back to
paying the tax rates they paid during the Clinton-era boom, or allowing
the nation's foundations to crumble." Noting that some state and municipal governments are saving money by turning out street lights, replacing paved roads with gravel ones, or firing teachers and shortening the school year, he argues with contempt bordering on fury that "a large part of our political class" has chosen crumbling foundations over higher taxes.
Krugman implies that higher taxes engender sturdy foundations - bright lights, paved roads and good schools. It's not clear, however, that tax increases are either necessary or sufficient for those purposes. America kept the street lights on, roads paved and schools open with the tax rates passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1993. It also did so with the even lower rates passed by a Republican Senate and Democratic House that President Reagan signed in 1986.
Explaining the failure to maintain infrastructure and perform basic public functions in terms of a single cause - too little money - neglects the possibility that some state and local governments are in fiscal trouble because they have spent their money badly. It is not the case, however, that the relationship between the size of the public revenue stream and the quality of the public services is direct, simple and reliable. If it were, high-revenue states would always have good roads and schools, and low-revenue states would always have bad ones. California's roads, schools and public services are not, in fact
, markedly superior to the ones in Texas, despite the fact that only a few states secure more money for state and local governments than California, and only a few secure less money than Texas. "Twenty years ago, you could go to Texas, where they had very low taxes,
and you would see the difference between there and California," Joel
Kotkin, executive editor of NewGeography.com
and a presidential fellow
at Chapman University in Southern California, told the Los Angeles Times
last year. "Today, you go to Texas, the roads are no worse, the
public schools are not great but are better than or equal to ours, and
their universities are good."
It would be generous to say that this other consideration, how capably and honestly states and cities spend their money, gets left out of Krugman's equation. It would be more accurate to say that it gets kicked out. It's not just that Krugman, and liberals generally, don't want to talk about the possibility that public funds are spent badly. They don't want anyone else to talk about it, either. Thus, Krugman endorses
Jonathan Cohn's argument
that "public employees are the new welfare queens." That is, the problem of over-compensated (and usually unionized) government workers is, in Krugman's words, "a phony issue," just like excessive welfare payments to able-bodied adults.
The phoniness of these phony issues is not self-evident. Phony as in non-existent? It's not as though examples of government spending money badly are hard to find.
- New York City teachers, who routinely get lifetime tenure after three years on the job, can spend years receiving six-figure salaries for doing nothing while the school board and union wrangle over complaints that they are unqualified and should be dismissed.
- The Milwaukee teachers union, which has "one, constant focus - putting children at the center of education," has also found the time and money to sue the school district for discriminating against male employees by excluding "Viagra and other drugs that treat erectile dysfunction from its health insurance plans."
- In California, 12,201 retired civil servants and public educators receive pensions of more than $100,000 per year. "Retired" is an approximate descriptor here, because California laws that allow public employees to retire in their 50s mean that many of them pocket their pensions while going on to work for other government agencies, or get hired as consultants by their former employer.
- Public officials in Illinois are virtuosos in the art of "pension-spiking," piling bonuses, overtime and extra assignments onto the paycheck of an employee who is just about to retire, causing his pension to leap dramatically.
Isolated incidents? As the "isolated" incidents keep piling up, it's harder and harder to keep from wondering if there isn't a deeper problem at work. The plural of "anecdote" is "data," as the saying goes. Adjusted for inflation and population growth, California's state and local governments spent
21.7% more in 2006 than in 1992. I'm still waiting to meet the first Californian who thinks the state's public services and infrastructure are 21% better than they were 18 years ago. It would be easy to stand in line at the DMV, however, and find one who thinks they're 21% worse.
Rather than address the problem Krugman wants to deny
the problem, and disparage anyone who treats it seriously. This is not a novel approach. Liberals have a long history of insisting that it is not just mistaken but illegitimate to challenge their enterprise by dwelling on inconvenient facts. Today it is extravagant compensation of public employees and the ineffectual, wasteful expenditure of public funds. In years past it has been the excesses of the welfare system or the ways school busing exacerbated racial tensions. Liberal efforts to rule discussion about rising crime out of order were so strenuous that conservatives were forced to ask, if "law and order" is a code word for "racism," what's the code word for "law and order"?
Before being stampeded into raising taxes or increasing deficits to prop up failing governments, conservatives today want to know when the accumulation of data about governmental malpractice becomes a legitimate issue, one that engages rather than enrages liberals who say they care about making government work. Is there nothing more to that caring than seeking more and more money for government? Doesn't using the money well and wisely have a claim on our attention, too?