Over the past few months we’ve been reading about protests against steep tuition hikes for state universities by students, teachers and other citizens of the sovereign state of California, home of sunshine, freeways and the world’s sixth largest economy. In another part of the world, many Pennsylvania drivers are up in arms that the state wants to make I-80 a toll road to help pay for keeping state roads in repair and mass transit improvements.
Today brings more of the same in two strangely similar news reports: One that Arizonans are furious that the state highway department closed all the freeway rest stops. The second reports of the fear and concern of people and law enforcement groups in California, Illinois, Michigan, Oregon and elsewhere that state prisons are releasing prisoners to cut costs.
What did people expect when governments keeps taxes lower than they should be? You wonder why tuition is going up, prisoners are getting out early and rest stops are shuttering their WC. You wonder why so many of your roads and bridges are in disrepair. You wonder why so many public schools can’t afford new books and computers for their kids.
You can’t provide the service if you don’t have the money.
“Starving the beast” is what many right-wingers call it. Since the passage of California Proposition 13 in 1978 and the ascent of Reagan in 1981, politicians and legislatures have put local, state and federal revenues on a starvation diet that has led to an erosion of basic services. The frequent cutting of taxes, particularly for the well-to-do, has emptied the coffers everywhere at the moment when we need public spending more than ever. Besides helping the victims of the recession ward off starvation and homelessness, we also face the challenge of rebuilding our sewer, road, school and other public infrastructure and we’re in debt. And yet many politicians and much of the populace call for cutting taxes even more.
Besides not taxing us enough, government has made two grievous errors:
- On the federal level, burning trillions of dollars and counting on two senseless and unwinnable wars.
- On both the state and federal levels, letting special interests dictate how industrial policy is implemented. For example, in the Bush administration, the lion’s share of money for alternative energy technologies went to corn biomass conversion, which uses more energy than it creates. We’ve seen how the gun manufacturers’ lobby has enticed legislators to erode the safety of Americans everywhere. It seems as if behind every law is a company or industry that campaigned for its passage and will benefit from the way the law is written.
Contrast the United States with Western Europe, which has much steeper taxes than we do, but provides a full range of social services to its citizens — health care, education, retirement all at a high level of quality. The freeway roads are in fine shape, at least in the five western European countries in which I’ve traveled over the past few years (Spain, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg). Everywhere you can see the digital revolution has improved the basic infrastructure. Mass transit within and between cities is uniformly inexpensive, convenient and safe.
Of course if we raised taxes and thereby had the money to fix our infrastructure, invest in better public schools, develop more mass transit and finance health care reform, some people would say we’ve become socialists. And they might call us commies if we kept our noses and our troops firmly planted outside the internal affairs of other countries.
And who would want that?