Thingish Things

Terms of Agreement

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - May• 29•11

I told a friend on the political Left some months ago, someone who posts on these pages regularly, that I was willing to make a big concession to him on a philosophical point. But events overtook it, and I quite forgot what it was I was willing to concede. Until today, when a story in The New York Post jolted my memory.

A couple of years back, I was working on a campaign challenging a long-term Democratic incumbent holding executive office.  His profligacy in spending public dollars was legendary – he spent unabashedly – and the habit ran smack into the wall of history.  He went down in flames at the advent of today’s tax revolt, despite enjoying a Democrat to Republican registration advantage greater than two-to-one.

Throughout the campaign the executive argued that sharp budget cuts would compromise “our values as a community” – he loved to use the word “values” – so as few cuts as possible should be made.  Only “waste” should be targeted, he said.  In other words, what his government had created, on top of that it had inherited, represented the aspirational best of the citizens he served.  His was a fundamentally liberal position, and he argued it to his detriment – to his credit.   (At least he stood for something.)

It is a bedrock principle among conservatives, on the other hand, that government should only provide for its citizens that which they cannot provide for themselves.  To purist conservatives, those things should begin and end with the armed forces, the post office, a highway system, public schools, and little else.  Anything additional boils down to government expropriating private resources and overreaching in its constitutional authority.  Individuals, conservatives argue, can spend money more productively and efficiently than can government.

Conservatives conceded that vision of America more than a century ago.  Government is now involved in every aspect of our lives.  Bake sales don’t pay for Little League  score boards anymore; alderman and state senators appropriate money for them.  The opera remains open because government floats it, and those riding mass transit only a pay a fraction of what their ride truly costs.  You can take those scenarios, multiply them by several hundred thousand, and still find left over areas in which government is partially or entirely footing the bill.

Which brings me to my concession.  Sort of.  Because I am asking my friend for one in return.

Today’s New York Post story touches on a rapidly emerging trend in America.  Local  governments are beginning to ask cultural institutions and other not-for-profits to pay for municipal services they have been getting free for decades.   They have to.  Governments are broke and getting broker by the day.  These institutions also are being asked to voluntarily pay things like property taxes, which their governments, in all their magnanimity, forewent more than a century ago.  But now they are desperate for cash.

This is an arithmetic trend that can only spell doom for America’s government-supported cultural programs.  What is being requested today will be demanded tomorrow.  What is being propped up with government funding today, will be left to fend for itself presently.  Those Little League score boards?  Buy ‘em yourself. Who do you think we are, Chase Manhattan?

Two points, the first being my concession and the second being my request for his:

1. Yes, the defeated executive and those who agree with him have a point.  This cutting trend will, indeed, effect things we value as Americans.  I, for one, would not like to get to a point where public subsidy for, say, a subway ride is entirely eliminated.  Poor people cannot pay $6 or $7 each way, or whatever it would cost, to get from Brooklyn to Manhattan.  Nor would I like to see public museums close.  They are part of who we are as a culture.

2.   This is happening for one reason, and everyone closely following government spending knows it. The elephant in the room is non-discretionary spending – Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and pension obligations – and both liberals and conservatives have a philosophical interest in addressing it (Peggy Noonan touches on this today.)

The cuts in discretionary spending we are now seeing – for parks, museums, seniors, education, and children — will become absolute as non-discretionary spending sucks up every available American dollar (It does already actually.  It’s borrowing is keeping us afloat.)  In other words, if we don’t do what’s necessary to pare mandated entitlement programs, there will be zero dollars left over for any other government programs we hold of value.

Liberals should recognize this first.  Everything they have built in this nation – the myriad programs that reflect their aspirational values – are at abject risk of dissolution because of entitlements.

I agree that some of those things have become fundamentally American.  So shouldn’t they be joining with the Paul Ryan’s of the world in seeking to save them?






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  1. Chris hellstrom says:

    This s a great argument. I like listening to NPR but I think most NPR listeners do not understand this entitlement bomb. They worry about NPR being shut down while ithis is mere pennies. Things need to change on a fundamental level. There was a brief idea of American Greatness breed of Republican outlined in the Weekly Standard by David Brooks in the nineties. Some say support of arts or missions to Mars are a waste of money. There is a middle ground that supports both a social safety net and money to keep us on the cutting edge while reigning in spending However, this requires holding a few ideas in mind at once, which is impossible in today’s climate.

  2. Your Friend says:

    So, if I’m reading this correctly the trade off is: you concede that government needs to subsidize the transportation system and I concede a complete overhaul of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. [You notice I didn’t put pension obligations in this list because, as you may recall, I’ve already conceded the death of the union in the United States; with that death such pension plans will be privatized (see GM and Chrysler).]

    I don’t think anyone needs the wisdom of Solomon to see this is an imbalanced trade, especially in light of my previous concession on pensions, which are probably equal to the transportation subsidies. So I will formerly request that you put the bloated $1 Trillion military budget into play.

    And, us liberal NPR listeners do understand the entitlement bomb. We just see it as a problem created by vast tax cuts for the wealthy. When I’m being really cynical, I recall the “starve the beast” credo. That’s exactly what the GWB tax cuts did and now that the beast is starving you all want to kill it. If you want to kill entitlement, use your hands, watch the life leak out of the eyes of your impoverished victims. But to use your hands, you’ll have to put down those $1 Trillion dollar smart bombs. Your move.

    PS —

    Clearly, transportation is the lifeblood of our economy. See the last sentence of the first paragraph in the link:

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