Friday, April 06, 2012

Atkins Calling Out The Bipartisan Myth

David Atkins, blogging on Hullabaloo, slams the cult of centrism and those who subscribe to it.He describes the lurch to the right by the Republican Party the last thirty years and decries Democratic accomodation with it. This makes the Fourth Estate's hand-wringing about bipartisanship an obsession which  long has been divorced from reality, and is increasingly so.   It is, further, grossly inadequate to the challenges the nation has faced for decades.Atkins notes

Bipartisanship and centrist legislation, meanwhile, has a horrible track record in the modern era. NAFTA was a bipartisan law beloved by centrists. So was the legislation that killed Glass-Steagall and deregulated the banks, allowing them to gamble away the nation's economy. The AUMF to invade Iraq was also very bipartisan and favored by centrists. It was centrists who watered down the Affordable Care Act; but for Joe Lieberman, Medicare would be available to anyone over 50 today, allowing for lower involuntary unemployment and lower healthcare costs overall. Centrists don't solve problems. Centrists CREATE problems.

That's a little bit harsh, but only barely so, and highlights another critical point Atkins makes. Neither centrist nor liberal policies ever will please most conservatives and splitting the difference," he argues persuasively, "would be bad public policy."    Instead, the two sides, he observes, "will be forever at war with one another, and that's precisely as it should be."

Atkins (his thoughts in bold; excerpt from This American Life in italics) wants us to

Consider the case of Colorado Springs recently highlighted in This American Life. The town refused to increase taxes in a recession, and chose to force residents to pay for their own street lights and park cleanups. That in turn led more affluent sections of the city to pay for services directly--at higher cost than their taxes would have been for the same--while the less affluent sections suffered. They binged on privatizing as many city services as they could, which didn't save them any money, but didsatisfy their worldview:

Overall, the city's budget for parks is about $12 million now, a lot smaller than it was at its height. But that's mostly because the parks department is doing less. They've closed swimming pools and laid off community center employees. They're replacing fewer playgrounds and fences and bridges. And Roland, for his part? He's not going back to the parks this summer. He hurt his back.

What I learned, though, from talking to the people in Colorado Springs is that for a lot of them these calculations don't really matter. They don't care if privatizing actually saves the government money, so long as the government is doing less.

City councilwoman Jan Martin says she hears this all the time. That it's become a matter of faith in the city that private is better. And she tells us a story. In the dark days, after the tax measure was defeated, city council was having another meeting about slashing government.

Jan Martin: And a gentleman came up to me and actually thanked me for the adopt a street light program. He had just written a check to the city for $300 to turn all the street lights back on in his neighborhood. And I did remind him that for $200 if he had supported the tax initiative, we could have had not only streetlights, but parks and firemen and swimming pools and community centers. That by combining our resources, we as a community can actually accomplish more than we as individuals.

Robert Smith: And he said?

Jan Martin: He said he would never support a tax increase.

Robert Smith: So for him it wasn't the money. He was willing to pay more to turn on the street lights than to pay for all city services.

Jan Martin: That's right. And it's because of a total lack in trust of local government to spend those services, which was part of Steve Bartolin's letter. That prevailing sense that government won't take care of our money, that brings somebody to the conclusion that, I'll take care of mine. You go figure out how to take care of yours, because we don't trust government to do it for us.

See, your average resident of Colorado Springs is willing to pay more money for worse services while letting his poorer neighbors do without street lights or clean parks--just as long as that money stays in the hands of private corporations rather than the nasty government.

It's not only in Colorado.     The Turnpike Commission in Pennsylvania wants to eliminate all toll booths on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and, as The Philadelphia Inquirer explains,"instead charge drivers as they pass at highway speed under overhead gantries equipped with electronic readers and cameras."

A motorist driving the full length (actually, width) of the state, from its border in New Jersey to that in Ohio, wold pay $30.17 utilizing E-Z pass and $53.10 if billed by mail.

But that's not all.     Expanding revenues, even at the cost of throwing citizens and taxpayers out of work, is a nearly irresistible lure for most states.     However, this proposal is motivated not by a desire to cut costs or increase funding.    The report prepared for the Turnpike Commission "estimated it would cost $320 million to install all-electronic tolling on the turnpike, and about $83 million a year to operate it.  All-electronic tolling would save money by eliminating the cost of toll collectors - currently $65 million a year."

The initial, fixed cost is estimated at $320 million, and cost overruns or additional costs not directly attributable to "overruns" usually run a bill much higher than the preliminary estimate.Moreover, licenses will have to be photographed, bills sent out by mail and collected, and violators penalized, what the report's authors termed "a robust violations enforcement, legal, and administrative framework."        

So on a year-to-year basis, costs are projected to be higher in a fully automated system than with the current system.     The latter is (somewhat) labor-intensive, actually employing Pennsylvanians, and therefore the state's power structure wants it eliminated.     If it is, as with street lights and park cleanup in Colorado Springs, the money would remain, as Atkins puts it, "in the hands of private corporations rather than the nasty government."    Not only would government officials, including Governor Fracking, benefit by handing out lucrative contracts to private concerns, the size of government would decline, notwithstanding the likelihood of greater cost to the taxpayer.    It's a win-win; considering the decline in employment, a win-win-win.

For most conservatives, as Atkins, suggests, decreasing net costs, pragmatic though it is, is not an asset, but actually a bug.      Clearly, the vision of ideological-free, bipartisan government ignores not only  the interest of conservative and neo-liberal officials in turning government over to the private sector, but also the desire of many conservative voters to kick government in the teeth to.... well, just to kick government in the teeth.

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