A radical idea is flooding through the American political discourse: that the only way to “repair” government budgets is to make extreme cuts to spending on social services, like education, healthcare, parks, infrastructure and public safety. The fact is: any public official who argues there is no option besides slashing spending on quality government programs is not creative enough and cannot be said to be fully equipped to govern.
Polls now show between 80% and 90% of Americans want “cuts” only to areas of spending that are legitimately wasteful, fraudulent or abusive. Only 11% support education cuts, for instance. There is no support for cutting Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security benefits, only waste, fraud and abuse. Officials who have promised budget-busting tax cuts in order to curry favor with voters and financial backers are not serious about fiscal solvency.
In Wisconsin, the governor is saying he wants public employees to contribute to their pension plans and healthcare; their contracts already specify that part of their payment is deferred and will be received in the form of those benefits, which means —in actual legal terms— that they are already funding 100% of their own benefits.
Gov. Walker is trying to force public servants in his state to pay twice for the same benefits, by obscuring the contractual language and using campaign rhetoric to misrepresent the facts. Gov. Walker does not represent mainstream American conservatism, because his proposals are an all-out assault on the administration and public services of the state of Wisconsin. He now proposes $1 billion in public education cuts, and steep reductions in spending on the state’s universities and scholarship programs, degrading the future of Wisconsin’s intellectual and commercial landscape and limiting the freedom of its people.
Mainstream conservatism in the United States has consistently favored quality government as a priority. At times, that has meant an opposition to the “expansion” of government into new roles in society; at other times, that has mean the very deliberate expansion of government into new roles.
Conservatism is not opposed to government; it is opposed to deviating from core principles of what constitutes quality government. But most independents are not ideological conservatives. The Republican party is now home to most Americans who identify themselves as decisively ideologically conservative. The Democratic party has a wider base in part because it is less strictly ideological, having expanded to include many who would have self-identified as conservative Reagan-type Republicans 30 years ago.
That was the real essence of the Clinton revolution: moving the Democratic party to the wide political center on policy specifics, without giving up the core principles of progressive politics. The fact is, there is only one reason to slash government spending on social services: a lack of imagination on the part of the official(s) doing the slashing.
If we have built schools, and our population is expanding, and there are young people to inhabit those classrooms, why in the world should we be laying off teachers, or cutting teacher pay and benefits, driving people out of the profession? In the year 2010, there was a 60% surge over 2009 numbers, in retirement filings for public sector employees.
Surveys show the cause is concern about the governor’s plans to cut deep into state pension plans. Getting out early, it is thought, can save those public servants near retirement from being forced to shed income or accept reduced benefits in a new contract. It is being called an in-state “brain drain”.
Losing experienced people is one thing, but a raft of simultaneous early retirements means less personnel on hand to train new hires. The caveat any budget-slashing governor would offer, of course, is that there is no plan to hire any new workers. In the aftermath of the private-sector financial crash, governors across the country have targeted the public sector for retribution, openly decrying public service work as inferior in nature to private sector work and a threat to democracy itself.
This is irresponsible rhetoric, to say the least, and the aggressive overtone common to these kinds of cut-to-save campaigns is evidence of how indefensible they often are. In New Jersey, for instance, the response to a deficit resulting from a Wall Street crash and the collapse of a dangerous housing bubble has been to cut funding to schools and other social programs.
The result is the degradation of the quality of opportunity available to the state’s children, for decades into the future. Communities are degraded when money is drained from public safety. But they are degraded far more when money is drained from education. When there are no after-school programs, children are more at risk, especially in poor urban areas.
Even in the rural midwest, communities of every variety have seen the devastating effect of shutting down extracurricular activities, pushing students into the street, unsupervised, to take up drugs and other dangerous distractions. It is irresponsible to attack the aspects of public service that provide quality of life and opportunity to communities and to citizens.
Better education reinforces and expands our democracy. It provides not only provides information but cultivates vital skills needed to navigate a rapidly evolving, dynamic global civilization. A great democracy deserves great leadership, representative of the best instincts, the best talents and the best interests of its people.
The recent trend of taking shortcuts to eminence by attacking what society values, then proclaiming one’s own brazen attacks to be virtuous frankness, is indicative of a lack of vision and imagination among those who behave in this way. If we are a democracy, we need to put people first, not ideology and not corporate interest.
The independent view is that people matter more than party, matter more than ideology, matter more than the right of major power brokers to profit easily. If your state is facing a budget shortfall, the first thing required is political representation that understands why we the people have demanded, created and sustained, vital public services for so long; the next thing is to defend them against the corrosive impact of parasitic interests and bad policy.
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Originally published March 2, 2011, at IndependentsOfPrinciple.com