The Budget Battle’s Missing Links

Paul Ryan fired an opening salvo in the budget battle last week – but will anyone be there to back him up?

Against the backdrop of a federal budget dispute, the predictable refrain has started: Ryan’s proposal to slash federal spending is “cruel” and “unfair.”  Groups like Americans for Prosperity and Crossroads GPS will provide some support by reinforcing the dire debt situation and the need to take action.

That line of response is necessary and true – but misses a major point.  It buries the best line in Ryan’s excellent explanatory video – and the best line that any Republican has had in about 30 years:

Washington has not been telling you the truth.

For the last 80 years (give or take) politicians have been running for (and winning) office based on the idea that they’d take care of you.  Washington, they explained, could feed the hungry, enrich the poor, employ the jobless, and most recently heal the sick.

What we’ve found out is that government sucks at all those things.  It’s not a matter of intention but a matter of aptitude.  Despite Washington’s promises – made, incidentally, by both parties and even Ryan himself – are still poor people, there are still elderly who don’t have enough money for retirement, there are still sick people who can’t pay for health care, there are still parents who can’t afford to feed their children.

It didn’t work, and it doesn’t work.  “Washington has not been telling you the truth.”

So who is being cruel?  Is it Ryan for cutting federal programs and reining in federal spending?  Or, are the advocates for the status quo – those who would ignore the spending crisis because paying attention to it is “cruel” – selling the public a vision of government doomed to fail when they need it most?

The safety net is fraying.  Business as usual will make it sag heavier until the ropes give way.  The GOP plan will help.  Regardless of its implications on the debate over the proper size of government, Ryan’s plan is the humane and just thing to do.

That important message isn’t the only thing that’s missing.  So far, I have not seen the important, grassroots organizing that has to be done to turn a good idea into a movement.  What about the internet?  What about the people searching “Ryan Budget” on Google right now who should be seeing sites that tell them, “Look, we need to do a better, more responsible job of taking care of people”?  What about the folks who could be organizing college campuses and calling for a better, more efficient government so that they can retire in 50 or 60 years?  What about building a movement – or, more accurately, mobilizing the tea party movement that already exists to take effective action in support of this new vision for America.

Voters don’t want or need platitudes about spending or missives about the size of government.  They want and need a simple vision to organize around, a vision for a better America that we can participate in – and a way to share a common victory.

There are questions being posed that have to be answered.Can our nation opt to depend on the power of the individual over the power of government?  Can we be more imaginative in our solutions to social problems than relying on the lazy crutch of government programs?  Can we do better for the people who need it most?

Someone needs to make sure that these questions are answered.  And the answer cannot come from television or radio ads, by celebrity spokespersons or politicians.  As with any movement, citizen activists are the only ones capable of responding to these questions, perhaps with a  positive, uplifting, appropriate (albeit plagiarized) answer: “Yes We Can.”

Where are they learning this stuff? Oh…

It’s a story that deals with higher taxes, government largess, and an agency that broke it’s promises.

Is it the current budget battle?  The raging debate over Obamacare?  The rallying cry for state public sector unions?  No, it’s Spring Concert at my alma mater, UMass.  This year, for the first time ever, students will have to pay to attend.

In light of the current debate over the size and scope of government spending, this tale is sort of interesting.

Some background: UMass’s annual Spring Concert dates back to at least the 1960s.  It used to be an outdoor event on the vast expanse of  space right in the middle of campus; since 1999 it has been held in the Mullins Center (which also hosts basketball, hockey, and other concerts).  The money to put on the concert comes from the student activities fund, which is charged along with tuition and other fees to each student on their bill each semester – essentially, a tax that funds student government activities.  The article points out that the fee is now $94 (it was in the $70 range when I was there) and includes a good description of the funding process and the way the Spring Concert is put together.

Controversy and disappointment are nothing new for the Spring Concert; the 1998 show (during my freshman year on campus) was scrapped because the agency in charge couldn’t scrape together enough funds after running other concerts throughout the year.  This year, the problem is that the $200,000 special fund that was set aside specifically for the concert (an outgrowth from the ’98 cancellation) isn’t enough to cover the talent and other costs.

In other words, a government agency is having trouble paying its bills, and is looking for taxpayers to make up the difference.

Especially telling is explanation offered by the advisor for University Productions and Concerts, the group in charge of the event:

“One of the problems is that we are a very spoiled campus,” said Lloyd Henley, associate director of the Center for Student Development and faculty advisor to the UPC. “We are used to such top-caliber artists, and so one of the things I said to UPC and the SGA is, ‘Something’s got to break.’”

Met with the dilemma of the high costs of talent and a budget which sounds big but probably goes quick when running an event of this size, Henley’s advice was apparently to charge more on top of what people were already paying – because the students/taxpayers are “spoiled” and the Spring Concert has to be a great show rather than a good free concert.  It’s not surprising; despite the “faculty” advisor moniker Henley’s position within the office that oversees campus activities gives him away as an administrative/bureaucratic figure.  In fact, some folks are calling for increases in student activities fees so that the shortfall doesn’t happen again in future year.  Because why shouldn’t a state school raise its fees to accommodate a really big concert?

It’s both sad and fortunate that the voice of reason comes from a student:

This past year, fees did not increase and, according to Josh Davidson, chairman of the SGA’s Ways and Mean Committee, they should stay the same until the budget process is modified.

“I really feel that we can spend the money a whole lot better,” he said. “The way that we allocate money to groups can be much more effective. I would like to see those things happen before we raise the fees.”

That’s a good philosophy, no matter what level of government you’re in.


Results don’t lie

My latest post over at Pundit League talks about the Obama White House’s attempt to shift the focus on budget debates from the money to the benefits.  This month, they’re talking about education as a sacred cow; future budget battles are sure to treat other programs similarly.  As difficult as budgets are, it’s still a tough sell to cut back on government programs everyone is used to.

But what if those programs, for lack of a better-refined and focus-group-tested term, suck?  That reality may be the best arrow in any small government Robin Hood’s quiver.

The Heritage Foundation points out that a boom in education spending has not bought higher performance in America’s public schools.  Thomas Sowell made a similar point this week, when he wrote about the allegedly ecologically friendly policies of urban liberals in San Francisco pricing low- and middle-class blacks out of the city.  Private unions – who represent workers who actually have to worry about their jobs – are concerned that the EPA would cause layoffs from companies forced to spend extra complying with extraneous regulations.

For each of these programs and others like them, there’s always talk about the benefits.  But as Speaker Boehner said this week, “Talk is cheap.”

It would be nice to spend lots of money, but is it smart?

Has anyone noticed that Washington, D.C. and St. Louis have some eerily similar discussions going on?

The last decade or more has demonstrated that bloated budgets are inefficient at best and simply untenable at worst.  While it would be nice to allocate large amounts of resources on the things we want for the next few years, those decision will come back to haunt us in the future.  We must establish a plan and maintain discipline.

That could be the mantra of the budget hawks freshly minted from the tea parties of 2009-2010, or it could be the rationale behind the Cardinals telling Albert Pujols to go find himself a better deal than the reported offer that was on the table.

Just as the Republicans wear the black eye of the Bush-era spending increases, the Cardinals must answer to Pujols – and their fans – how they signed Coors Field product Matt Holliday to a contract which paid him $16 million per year, but would be willing to let the far superior Pujols walk because he’s too expensive.

Republicans are likely fearful of the Democrats accusing them of ripping Social Security checks from the arthritic hands of World War II veterans.  The Cardinals can’t be looking forward to the sports page headlines and the talk radio chatter in St. Louis the day Pujols signs with the Seattle Mariners.

But in each case, the powers that be must recognize two realities.  First, bad decisions in the past do not justify bad decisions in the present.  Second, voters and fans are smarter than most people give them credit for.

And since the baseball problem is easier, here’s something to consider: teams lose superstars all the time and go on to have success.  Seattle lost three franchise cornerstones – Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., and Alex Rodriguez – in consecutive years, and actually got better each year.  Johan Santana left the Twins, and they still find their way into the playoffs with regularity.  The Marlins won the World Series in 1997, dumped almost their entire roster, and rebuilt another championship team within six years.

On the other hand, teams just as frequently make signings that seem like great ideas at the time, but turn into albatrosses as players age.  The Mets surely wish they could trade Carlos Beltran, and might try to murder Luis Castillo to get him off the roster.  Vladimir Guerrero was a great pickup for the Angels in 2003, by 2009 they couldn’t get him out the door fast enough.  And don’t you think the Cubs wish they could take a mulligan on the eight-year pact they signed with Alfonso Soriano in 2006?

Just as voters want a responsive, healthy economy, baseball fans want a winner.  The Cardinals have to know that they more likely to successfully recover within a few years after Pujols walks away than to sign him to a deal that truly works out for the team.

The budget battle in St. Louis, just as the budget battle in Washington, is best viewed through the lens of recent history.