I attended a local government meeting earlier this month in order to keep up with the latest on fracking in our town. Something else interesting happened as well. The meeting began with a budget review. Budget reviews are long and drawn out affairs even when they’re not, if you know what I mean. Fifteen minutes of going through line items, projected numbers, shortfalls, and so on can seem very long indeed if you aren’t turned on by bookkeeping.
That’s a shame, because those kinds of dry, eye glazing exercises are where the real action is at from a policy perspective. As our trustees went through the numbers, one item in particular jumped out at me. That is not because it was the biggest number, but the easiest to understand. The secretary’s review included a big, fat zero for funds that had formerly come from the estate tax. It was eliminated entirely for 2010, which had meant less funding for our town.
It was kind of interesting to see the conservative trustees let it pass without comment. Now, this was a budget review and not a debate. It would have been nonsensical to inject a line of political comment into the middle of it. Still, it seemed a little jarring for everyone to treat this thing - a major policy change that everyone present could see had a material, adverse impact on our community - treated as though it were an act of God.
Policy decisions are just that: decisions. They don’t drop out of the clear blue sky; they are conscious and deliberate, and they reflect our values. And while it wouldn’t do to single out one item in the budget for commentary, it might be worthwhile to have all of them subject to a little discussion. It would make the review process longer, but it would almost surely make it more relevant.
As towns across the country struggle with the Republicans’ overwhelmingly counterproductive commitment to austerity, it would be helpful to make sure the cause and effect are highlighted as much as possible. Funding from the estate tax that was used for, say, road maintenance is no longer there. The right wing is already going crazy about what it calls a fiscal cliff at the end of the year - but states got pushed off a cliff two years ago when stimulus funding ran out. Democrats were willing to make up for the shortfall; Republicans were adamantly opposed.
Conservatives love to cry class warfare or socialism when progressive taxation comes up. How DARE the state take from the wealthy and redistribute it to those lower on the economic food chain! But forget about how the funds are used; progressive taxation is in and of itself good for the country. It is one of the best hedges available against inequality. Creating barriers to the intergenerational transfer of wealth is crucial to preventing a de facto hereditary monarchy. Taxing the rich would be sound policy even if we took all the proceeds and set them on fire.
It just makes extra good sense to find a socially useful purpose for the receipts. The effects of reduced funding are playing out across the country in concrete ways. A clear, bright line can be drawn between austerity budgeting and diminished municipal services. Unfortunately, itemizing it requires three things that are generally in short supply even for committed activists: Access to year-to-year budgeting data, wonky devotion to number crunching, and a substantial amount of time to comb through it. It’s a classic good news/bad news scenario. The good news is, the data is there for the taking. The bad news is, it’s really hard to process.
It doesn’t have to be processed everywhere, though. If even a handful of happily situated individuals ferreted out the relevant information, it might be relatively easy to propagate. This is a presidential election year, and one that already has sounded themes of inequality. There are plenty of candidates for office who would welcome the opportunity to relentlessly publicize some of the real world effects of catering to billionaires. I imagine this would be a pretty easy message to sell:
The GOP took care of the fat cats. As a result, maybe your roads don’t get plowed this winter, or maybe you’ll just have to wait a whole lot longer for a truck to pass by. Or maybe you’ll have to raise property taxes to make up the difference. The rich have succeeded in hoarding that much more money all to themselves, which means everyone else will have to dig that much deeper - or resign themselves to fewer public services. This reduction in your standard of living has been brought to you by the Republican party, with the sponsorship of the 1%.