Wednesday, June 24, 2009

50% conflicted

My wife and I live in Illinois. I work for a nonprofit that serves a population heavily dependent on state aid for lots of services -- housing, drug treatment, medical needs, psychological counseling and treatment, etc. Thus, I'm not jazzed about Gov. Pat Quinn's disingenuous "50% budget" gambit. But I don't necessarily disapprove of it. I am, in fact, quite ambivalent about it. Let me explain.

Earlier this year, Quinn failed to convince the state legislature to approve the 50% income tax increase he wanted to close the budget deficit. Quinn responded with a budget that was balanced in a different fashion -- by cutting state aid to most social services by up to 50%. Quinn is a fairly liberal Democrat, so we can reasonably surmise that he's not serious about these cuts. In fact, it's pretty clear that this budget is a stunt to force the legislature's hand and get his unconscionable income tax hike passed. The surprise, however, has been the number of legislators seriously entertaining the prospect of passing it.

In response to this surprise, the constituencies effected by the prospective cuts have frantically lobbied Springfield to put their funding back into the budget. That money, however, has to come from somewhere. Unlike the federal government, Illinois is required by its constitution to have a balanced budget. (There can be shortfalls due to insufficient revenue, but they can't be deliberately planned for and built into the budget in the way that Congress and the White House have been planning the national budget for almost 80 years.) But, because of the recession, state revenues are down a lot. Unless the state plans for a way to take in more revenue, the only way it can balance its budget is through making cuts of one kind or another. And whatever course of action the Illinois state government decides upon must be chosen quickly -- the new budget has to take effect July 1.

[These cuts doesn't necessarily entail cutting programs, by the way. They could, for example, mean restructuring the way the state conducts those programs so that they run more efficiently. Given the built-in inefficiencies of most government programs -- the fact of state monopoly, the common presence of overpaid (often unionized) workers on many projects, the necessity for departments to spend all their funds or risk a smaller budget to work with in the next fiscal year (leading to a lot of stupid purchases and wasteful spending) -- such restructuring is pretty difficult and seldom accomplished (especially in a state as corrupt as Illinois).]

For this reason, Quinn has basically said to the legislature, "You don't want to jack up people's income taxes? Fine. Let's see how much you like throwing homeless moms and kids on the street, closing down food pantries, and shutting down community centers." It's an adolescent political gambit, but one that will probably work. There are many other ways to balance the budget that involve neither massive cuts to social services or huge increases in taxes. Quinn, who has refused to accept that people don't want and shouldn't have huge taxes, has created a false dichotomy, though, and he's cast the legislature as the bad guys.

"I don't want moms and kids on the street," he effectively says, his hands raised in a gesture of helplessness. "If I had my way, they wouldn't be on the street. It's too bad the legislature's putting them there."

The story is framed as social services vs. income taxes, and the legislature is increasingly cast as the bad guys. But this shouldn't be so. And even if it is, I don't think they're necessarily that bad.

As a traditionalist conservative, I see a much smaller role for the state to legitimately play in society. Much of the social services they provide should, in my opinion, be provided by private actors -- individuals, churches, benevolent societies, etc. This, in fact, was the case prior to the New Deal and the Great Society. State aid has crowded out private social services, and the private sector social service provision has severely atrophied as a result. The only way to rectify the mistake of state over-involvement in social service provision is for the state to stop providing social services.

If that happens, American society will be much, much better off. The same services that are now often provided inefficiently and in a bleak and soul-crushing manner by the state (especially the so-called "passport" benefits like Medicaid which punish recipients for trying to improve themselves by working) could be provided much more effectively and with more spiritual benefits by the private sector. Our culture's insidious march to the Brave New World could be slowed -- and, just maybe, begin to be reversed -- if we were forced out of the evil delusion that we should rely on an increasingly omnipresent state for an increasing portion of our benefits.

If that happens, hundreds of thousands of people will be much, much worse off in the short-term, however. Dozens of people whom I know personally will be even worse off than they are now (and believe me when I tell you that for some of them, such a state of affairs is hardly imaginable). Several of them will likely die as a result. Those people will not see or enjoy and of the benefits that we, as individuals and as a society, will get from such a decision. It will just take too long for the private sector to regain the capacity and the expertise in once had before federal and state governments usurped their position in providing social services. I'd think it would take 3-5 years at least. What is to be done for the people negatively affected by the cuts that are required to jump-start the private sector's philanthropic capacity during that time?

Hence my ambivalence. I believe that hiking the income tax to 4.5% (from its currently outrageous 3%) is absolutely wrong. I believe that putting most, if not all, of social services currently provided by the public sector into the hands of private actors is a morally superior state of affairs. I believe that a harsh measure like the 50% budget is the only course that can achieve that morally superior state of affairs. But I also know that countless thousands of people will suffer while that state of affairs is still asserting itself.

In the immortal words of Dennis Hopper, "What do you do? What do you do?"

That's a very good question.

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