Pop Politico: Spare Change

Presidential campaigns, like marketing campaigns, have to have a sellable theme. Something that sounds snappy and connects with voters/consumers so they will act (i.e., vote for a candidate or buy a certain product). Whether it was Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” or Bill Clinton’s “Hope” campaign, or even George W. Bush’s “Trust” campaign (in which he proclaims his trust for people over the government), they are all selling something.

This year the theme is “Change.” Hillary wants change, Obama wants change, Huckabee wants change, McCain wants change. They all say they want to govern differently than the current administration – something that the Bush administration seems okay with, as long as Republican candidates don’t criticize him too pointedly.

Campaign themes appeal to our emotional desires. They sell the sizzle, and it’s our job to fill in the blanks for which kind of steak we want. But what if the “change” we crave has consequences that are more nightmarish than the status quo? Case in point: the California budget shortfall and the campaign theme of Arnold Schwarzenegger during the recall election of 2003.

Faced with a record budget deficit, and low approval numbers from members of his own party, Gray Davis was fired by the people of California in 2003, and clearing Schwarzenegger’s path to the governor’s mansion. Arnold’s campaign was propelled with talk of change, tax cuts, and “blowing up boxes” (i.e., fundamentally changing the way governmental agencies provide services to citizens and residents of the state). A large number of Californians liked that kind of talk, and while the governor had some success when it came to his ability to “blow up boxes,” he started going after groups who provide essential services (i.e., fire fighters, teachers, and nurses) and, well, that backfired in his face.

This week, Schwarzenegger announced budgetary cuts for 2008 that will affect kids, the poor, prisoners, and those who generally love the outdoors. Cuts in education, health care for the poor, prisons, and even the closing of state parks is being proposed to deal with a $14.5 billion budget shortfall – spurred in large part by the real estate downturn.

California has one of the largest economies in the world, yet the cuts in the education system will decrease the skillset of California residents when it comes to the needs of crucial industries. If you’re an anti-immigrant type, you’re really going to, um, love the consequences of slashing education funding. If California industries need people to perform certain jobs that require special skills, then they are going to lobby the Federal government to change immigration policies to allow for more immigrants to perform the tasks that many Californians are ill-equipped for.

If you slash health care funding, you will probably put more elderly residents in the ground earlier than they may want, but you also run the risk of increasing disease among the general population. Why? Because someone who can’t afford health care won’t see a doctor and get meds to help stave off whatever is ailing him, and, well, you see where this is heading.

I’m not opposed to decreasing the prison population and shrinking that “growth industry,” but there’s a problem with Arnold’s proposal to release both non-violent prisoners and firing prison guards at the level he wants: If there aren’t any jobs for these people, or money in the budget to help them with new skills (i.e., education), then the consequences of a large group of economically anxious people without jobs is not good. Can anyone say “increase in crime?”

The nature of our governmental entities (i.e., local, state and federal) is not really proactive. Rather, it’s reactive – and that “reactive” nature is reinforced by the election cycle where candidates ask us to react to this or that crisis by agreeing to quick fixes that, on the surface, seem appealing. No one that I know of likes paying taxes, and rarely are people satisfied with the services government provides, but like it or not, government really is the most uniformly consistent entity to deliver certain services to people. But in order to maintain that consistency, you have to spare those sectors (i.e., education, health care, police, fire, and the like) from the ups and downs of budgetary shortfalls. How do you do this? One way: in the economically flush years, take budget surpluses and save them for an inevitable economic downturn – instead of “refunding” it in the form of tax breaks. That way, if you need to reduce taxes, you can do it without cutting too much into services that are most needed.

I bring all this up because the economic plight of California will probably be the plight of many other states very soon (if not already). As a voter, look beyond the market-tested campaign themes of a particular candidate and ask yourself what kind of country you want to live in — and see how your answer squares with your political ideology when the services you take for granted go away.

Sufjan Stevens, “Adlai Stevenson”




  • Mr. Jones

    Nice work … maybe you can follow up with some songs written expressly for voting/campaigns, such as “Voter Registration Rag” by Arlo Guthrie or “The War Song” by Graham Nash/Neil Young, for George McGovern.

  • http://yahoo.com eric

    In Iowa, we have replenished emergency funds in the state budget. Now, heading into what may be an economic downturn, we are in reasonably good shape except that the Democrat-controlled legislature and executive have promised many NEW services (combined with property tax cuts, haha, sound familiar?) that outstrip the likely tax inflows.

    Democrat, Republican, it is all a crock. No one wants to face up to economic realities (except Ron Paul, who everyone wants to marginalize). The last people who want to face up to economic realities are all the people who elect these boobs. I'd like to think people are ready for real change, but my guess is we're not quite there. So they'll settle for faux change.

    But there is a bigger problem even if we want to maintain the current level of services or even expand them, and that is the structure of government, which is organized more like a 1950s corportation. Multi-level, hidebound, process-oriented rather than results-oriented. Perhaps Romney could change this at the federal level if elected, but I'd say the odds are against him. Gov't needs to get lean and mean, and actually be held responsible for producing results or the department gets defunded. Instead we see a government which cannot accomplish basic tasks, like disaster relief. Or keeping non-citizens out of the country. And people want to turn over responsibility for health care to a system which proves its ineptitude at every level? I don't get it. As I said, I think people will not really look carefully at the steak under the sizzle, because really they are looking for faux change, not the whole sad truth and what it takes to fix the mess.

  • http://www.jellyjules.com J

    I sometimes think the last proactive politicians were the founding fathers, and in a way, they were reacting to their own past. But at least they were trying to look forward and put together a government that would work well into the future. These days, no one seems interested in looking at long term solutions to any problems, or at honestly trying to figure out what this country should look like in 20, 50, 100 years, and then the most efficient ways to get there.

  • JonCummings

    California's anti-tax madness is, as always, at the heart of the current crisis–along with the budgetary shackles imposed by the initiative process. I couldn't stand in more complete opposition to the opinions expressed by Eric below, as far as the scope of government goes, though I share his frustration at the lack of realism among elected officials and voters.

    The answer isn't profoundly less government, as Ron Paul wants, nor is it totally incompetent and corrupt government, which is all the Republicans have proved they can provide. Nor, for that matter, is it the ridiculously ambitious yet throroughly underfunded government that Californians and other Americans seem to demand.

    I find it extraordinary that Californians–particularly those in upper-middle-class areas like the one I live in–are willing to put themselves through continual education and health-care crises simply because they're hellbent on keeping taxes low. Arnold refuses even to consider a tax hike, apart from insignificant “fee” increases that are mostly smoke and mirrors, despite the fact that (thanks to Prop 13 all those years ago) California's property taxes are ridiculously low and its income taxes are in the bottom half of the nation's, percentage-wise.

    What's needed in this country isn't just change, but greenback DOLLARS and people with the brains to use them wisely. Conservatives can spout all the “government is the problem” bullshit they want, but the simple facts are these: America's tax burden is on the severely low end among industrialized nations. America's health care and education statistics are lower than those of almost every nation to which we'd be comfortable comparing ourselves. There is a correlation between these facts that is undeniable.

  • http://mostlymodernmedia.wordpress.com Beau

    I'm not really at liberty to talk politics, but the problem with defunding underperforming departments is this — don't we, like, need a Department of Defense? Or State?

  • http://www.popdose.com 1Py_Korry1

    Good suggestions! Stevens was a kind of last minute add as I was wrapping up the post.

  • http://www.popdose.com 1Py_Korry1

    Eric: you demonstrate your frustration with political system (which is pretty much an American pastime), but since you're on the right politically, you must know that Republicans are just as interested in securing government largess as Democrats –it's just that the spending priorities differ. Re: Gov't getting “Lean and mean…” I can't imagine a candidate asking for people to vote for him/her by saying “If elected, I plan on bringing home less money and doing very little to help improve things around here.” Candidates are certainly more artful in their use of language, but the message is pretty clear: Government will “shrink” for those deemed undeserving, but government services will remain the same for YOU (i.e., those who are deserving).

  • http://www.popdose.com 1Py_Korry1

    I suppose that's because most elected officials are only in the game for a short period of time — which often results in short-sighted solutions.

  • http://www.popdose.com 1Py_Korry1

    Well put Jon! One of the “hidden costs” of keeping taxes low (esp. in schools) is the never-ending fundraising that goes on to keep schools afloat. We've become conditioned to accept paying more for education — but only when it comes to “our” kids. If it's a general tax for education, it's spun as the end of the world.

  • http://www.popdose.com 1Py_Korry1

    One example of defunding government departments: The purges in the State Department that took place after McCarthy launched his hunt for commies in the U.S. had the consequence of leading us deeper into the Vietnam conflict. Why? Because the folks who understood the conflict in Vietnam was a nationalist movement and not part of a world-wide communist expansion were replaced by people who would go along with ideology of the “Red Scare.”

  • http://yahoo.com eric

    Of course you are 100% correct. The Republican party has completely lost its way. Ron Paul would be the man, if not for his “magical thinking” about Islamist terror.

  • http://yahoo.com eric

    “What's needed in this country isn't just change, but greenback DOLLARS and people with the brains to use them wisely.”

    Who could argue with that? However, since we have little evidence of “brains to use them wisely,” why should they be given more dollars? Let people use their own dollars in a way that seems best to them. It's called “freedom.” I can't claim that individuals are more intelligent than the government in spending their money. But at least there's no middleman.

  • JonCummings

    I don't buy the libertarian equation of low taxes with “freedom”–never have and never will. I believe an advanced, civilized society has an obligation to promote equality of opportunity and access, and a responsibility to help the needy in all sorts of ways. Government should and must exist with a scope (and with appropriate revenues, obtained from all citizens according to their ability to contribute) that emphasizes those obligations at least as much as it caters to the self-interest of those who have enough.

    I don't believe that a large enough proportion of individual citizens, either on their own or through the “middlemen” of charities, would choose to contribute enough of their time, energy and money to fulfill those societal obligations with adequate scope, scale or financing. In our times, only government is able to do that. (That is not to say that government will do this perfectly, or with optimum efficiency. That depends on the people who legislate and manage the programs–and I know one group of people who recently have proven they are NOT qualified, or capable, or even particularly interested in running a high-functioning government.)

    The root of it is this: Are we in this together, or is it each man for himself? The latter may have worked in the dark ages, but in modern civilization I simply believe that the imperative of humankind is to ensure the survival and sustenance of those least able to contribute themselves. Government, for all its flaws and for all the disagreements about how best to manage it, has long since been proven the best and most equitable vehicle for fulfilling that purpose.

  • JonCummings

    No kidding. When we arrived in California five years ago, after starting my son's education in the New York suburbs, we were appalled at the lack of state funding for the schools and the endless fundraising required just to provide what we considered basic educational services (like art, for crying out loud!). We actuallly talked our school's PTA into abandoning its incessant, nickel-and-dime fundraising in favor of a requested once-a-year contribution from each family–a voluntary tax, if you will–that has done a more efficient job of getting money into the art, music, science and other programs. I'm happy that most parents in our school can afford the contribution to make up for the state's lack of appropriate support; it doesn't make me any less disgusted with the lack of funding in L.A. neighborhoods where the parents can't afford to make up the difference.

  • JonCummings

    I don't buy the libertarian equation of low taxes with “freedom”–never have and never will. I believe an advanced, civilized society has an obligation to promote equality of opportunity and access, and a responsibility to help the needy in all sorts of ways. Government should and must exist with a scope (and with appropriate revenues, obtained from all citizens according to their ability to contribute) that emphasizes those obligations at least as much as it caters to the self-interest of those who have enough.

    I don't believe that a large enough proportion of individual citizens, either on their own or through the “middlemen” of charities, would choose to contribute enough of their time, energy and money to fulfill those societal obligations with adequate scope, scale or financing. In our times, only government is able to do that. (That is not to say that government will do this perfectly, or with optimum efficiency. That depends on the people who legislate and manage the programs–and I know one group of people who recently have proven they are NOT qualified, or capable, or even particularly interested in running a high-functioning government.)

    The root of it is this: Are we in this together, or is it each man for himself? The latter may have worked in the dark ages, but in modern civilization I simply believe that the imperative of humankind is to ensure the survival and sustenance of those least able to contribute themselves. Government, for all its flaws and for all the disagreements about how best to manage it, has long since been proven the best and most equitable vehicle for fulfilling that purpose.

  • JonCummings

    No kidding. When we arrived in California five years ago, after starting my son's education in the New York suburbs, we were appalled at the lack of state funding for the schools and the endless fundraising required just to provide what we considered basic educational services (like art, for crying out loud!). We actuallly talked our school's PTA into abandoning its incessant, nickel-and-dime fundraising in favor of a requested once-a-year contribution from each family–a voluntary tax, if you will–that has done a more efficient job of getting money into the art, music, science and other programs. I'm happy that most parents in our school can afford the contribution to make up for the state's lack of appropriate support; it doesn't make me any less disgusted with the lack of funding in L.A. neighborhoods where the parents can't afford to make up the difference.

  • http://www.popdose.com 1Py_Korry1

    Good suggestions! Stevens was a kind of last minute add as I was wrapping up the post.

  • http://www.popdose.com 1Py_Korry1

    Eric: you demonstrate your frustration with political system (which is pretty much an American pastime), but since you're on the right politically, you must know that Republicans are just as interested in securing government largess as Democrats –it's just that the spending priorities differ. Re: Gov't getting “Lean and mean…” I can't imagine a candidate asking for people to vote for him/her by saying “If elected, I plan on bringing home less money and doing very little to help improve things around here.” Candidates are certainly more artful in their use of language, but the message is pretty clear: Government will “shrink” for those deemed undeserving, but government services will remain the same for YOU (i.e., those who are deserving).

  • http://www.popdose.com 1Py_Korry1

    I suppose that's because most elected officials are only in the game for a short period of time — which often results in short-sighted solutions.

  • http://www.popdose.com 1Py_Korry1

    Well put Jon! One of the “hidden costs” of keeping taxes low (esp. in schools) is the never-ending fundraising that goes on to keep schools afloat. We've become conditioned to accept paying more for education — but only when it comes to “our” kids. If it's a general tax for education, it's spun as the end of the world.

  • http://www.popdose.com 1Py_Korry1

    One example of defunding government departments: The purges in the State Department that took place after McCarthy launched his hunt for commies in the U.S. had the consequence of leading us deeper into the Vietnam conflict. Why? Because the folks who understood the conflict in Vietnam was a nationalist movement and not part of a world-wide communist expansion were replaced by people who would go along with ideology of the “Red Scare.”

  • http://yahoo.com eric

    Of course you are 100% correct. The Republican party has completely lost its way. Ron Paul would be the man, if not for his “magical thinking” about Islamist terror.

  • http://yahoo.com eric

    “What's needed in this country isn't just change, but greenback DOLLARS and people with the brains to use them wisely.”

    Who could argue with that? However, since we have little evidence of “brains to use them wisely,” why should they be given more dollars? Let people use their own dollars in a way that seems best to them. It's called “freedom.” I can't claim that individuals are more intelligent than the government in spending their money. But at least there's no middleman.

  • JonCummings

    I don't buy the libertarian equation of low taxes with “freedom”–never have and never will. I believe an advanced, civilized society has an obligation to promote equality of opportunity and access, and a responsibility to help the needy in all sorts of ways. Government should and must exist with a scope (and with appropriate revenues, obtained from all citizens according to their ability to contribute) that emphasizes those obligations at least as much as it caters to the self-interest of those who have enough.

    I don't believe that a large enough proportion of individual citizens, either on their own or through the “middlemen” of charities, would choose to contribute enough of their time, energy and money to fulfill those societal obligations with adequate scope, scale or financing. In our times, only government is able to do that. (That is not to say that government will do this perfectly, or with optimum efficiency. That depends on the people who legislate and manage the programs–and I know one group of people who recently have proven they are NOT qualified, or capable, or even particularly interested in running a high-functioning government.)

    The root of it is this: Are we in this together, or is it each man for himself? The latter may have worked in the dark ages, but in modern civilization I simply believe that the imperative of humankind is to ensure the survival and sustenance of those least able to contribute themselves. Government, for all its flaws and for all the disagreements about how best to manage it, has long since been proven the best and most equitable vehicle for fulfilling that purpose.

  • JonCummings

    No kidding. When we arrived in California five years ago, after starting my son's education in the New York suburbs, we were appalled at the lack of state funding for the schools and the endless fundraising required just to provide what we considered basic educational services (like art, for crying out loud!). We actuallly talked our school's PTA into abandoning its incessant, nickel-and-dime fundraising in favor of a requested once-a-year contribution from each family–a voluntary tax, if you will–that has done a more efficient job of getting money into the art, music, science and other programs. I'm happy that most parents in our school can afford the contribution to make up for the state's lack of appropriate support; it doesn't make me any less disgusted with the lack of funding in L.A. neighborhoods where the parents can't afford to make up the difference.