Thursday, September 20, 2007

Reading: Sirota and the lesson of the DMV

David Sirota has landed in the Creators Syndicate space left vacant by the passing of Molly Ivins last winter.

He's got a great article out today, on a topic that certainly pushes one of my buttons: It's not that conservatives don't believe government can work; it's that they don't want it to.

In his 1981 inaugural address, Ronald Reagan famously said that government isn't a solution to our problems; government is the problem. That's been the mantra of small-government pro-privitization conservatives for a generation, and it's always amazed me how little examination the fundamental dishonesty of that position has gotten.

To pick one of my favorite examples, although Sirota doesn't mention it: The biggest reason they'll be fighting hammer and tong against health care reform is not because they don't think something as successful, efficient, and popular as VA-style health care could be made available to every American, it's because they're terrified at the thought that it can be, since that would be the end of their drown-it-in-the-bathtub gravy train.

Sirota begins with a quotidian moment most of us have experienced:
By the time I posed for my license photo, I had spent three total hours in a DMV office, as had at least 200 other people.

While I smiled for the camera, I considered this mundane encounter with state government in economic terms. Between all the people I waited with, about 600 combined hours of economic output was extracted from the state and thrown away. Multiply that over an entire year throughout any given state, and you see how poorly run public services take a severe — and hidden — toll on a state's economy.

Services, of course, do not fail in a vacuum. They fail because budget cuts leave them lacking adequate resources to succeed. While Republican economics teaches that less government spending means a stronger, more efficient economy, my experience at the DMV suggests otherwise, as does this state's overall experience as a test tube for conservatives' budget and tax doctrine.
From there, his analysis goes on to the more general topic of so-called TABOR (Taxpayers Bill of Rights) initiatives that lock in reduced government services for popular programs by making it impossible for government to raise the money needed to provide the services at an adequate level. (Sirota's DMV adventures took place in Colorado, where TABOR got its most high-profile test--and failed miserably.) The conservative economic argument is circular: Having hamstrung government's ability to provide popular services, they offer faulty service as "proof" that government is the problem.

Oregon escaped the TABOR trap a couple of years ago, but that's by no means the end of it. As Sirota points out:
Conservative activist Grover Norquist says that in the next 10 years he plans to push 25 constitutional spending caps in states, and that 25 years from now, all states will have TABORs.

It's like the end of a bad slasher movie, when the monster turns out not to be dead after all, isn't it?

Sirota's piece is going on the much-neglected Readings list on the side bar.

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