Emmer column: Spending without evidence; the American way
The sun has set on 2017’s Tax Day. A new day has dawned, yet the politics that drive taxes and deficits remain the same.
In Garfield County, the three major parties break down like this: Democrats 25 percent, Republicans 32 percent and none-of-the-aboves 41 percent. Lessor parties feed on the crumbs.
One way to look at that is to say non-lefties make up about 73 percent of registered voters. Democrats are proud of their record. Yet to non-lefties, the left has two long-standing weak spots. Security is one. We’ll ignore that here.
Money is the other.
If success is defined as spending power, the left has won the political Olympics. Government budgets have grown three times faster than private budgets over the past 88 years. U.S. public spending now totals $42,000 per household per year.
With it, the left has built universal, basic public education; constructed and expanded the Social Security system; given heath care to the poor and elderly; given cash to people who have lost their jobs; and provided food and housing to millions.
The non-left sees the good in all this. It also sees the other shoe. It sees that the Congressional Budget Office projects public finances to follow the same trajectory as the last flight of the Challenger space shuttle. The quality of social spending results is highly arguable. Meanwhile, the economy walks with a limp.
Certainly, the non-left shares responsibility for the wildly unbalanced public checkbook. Politicians and bureaucrats of all stripes live to spend money. Yet it is the left that has the bright neon reputation for free spending, deserved or not.
When the non-left looks at its family picture of the left side of the clan, it sees beaming teens in braces and T-shirts. It also sees an oxygen-huffing Social Security linked arm-in-arm with a terminal Medicare. Debt-drained Illinois and Puerto Rico are in the picture, too, looking gaunt and tense. LBJ’s Great Society does not appear at all. He’s passed away from self-inflicted wounds.
The non-left can’t help but see Venezuela in the photo, too. The baby in her arms wears no diapers because the county is fresh out. Greece can be seen, too, looking sickly thin, with desperate eyes.
When the left looks at the same group photo, its gaze automatically falls on happier faces. It sees the multiethnic smiles. It sees women front and center and the grins on the gays. It highlights its environmental victories, too. The left rightly beams with pride.
To the non-left though, the left’s money habits are an obstacle to greater support. It believes the left’s economic policies are, uh, speculative.
Boris Yeltsin, the first post-Communist president of Russia once cracked, “They should have experimented with communism on a smaller country first.”
Former senior finance officials of both large American parties point out that almost no federal expenditures are backed by solid analysis, rigorous review or sound data. Almost all public spending is gut-hunch stuff, logrolling or just habit.
To complement its reputation for compassion with a dose of competence, the left could easily develop the financial skills that the public sector sorely lacks (and that China is rapidly learning, by the way).
Forget the feds. They are not interested. See Ron Haskins’ book, “Show Me The Evidence,” for an understanding of the embryonic federal interest in effective social spending.
Colorado is not much better. Take its nation-leading electric vehicle subsidies. It wants to put more electric cars on the road. It spends your money to do that. Yet it does not separate the effect of Tesla’s promotions or press coverage of electric cars or even gas prices from its own effort to electrify autos. Bottom line: the State spends your money, but it does not know if it does any good.
Our towns and counties, schools and special districts have a big, fat opportunity right under their noses. They can embarrass the feds. They can show the state how it’s done. They can add real value to citizens’ lives just by trying to prove they do so.
It is as easy as making Jell-O. First, in a large bowl, combine the costs of public programs with the benefits. Compare them. Report to citizens candidly. Then add two cups of democracy. Blend gently to avoid splatter. Then step aside.
Each individual citizen will select the recipe that suits her taste best. Then she will combine that recipe with other programs to assemble a full meal. If she wants her tax money to subsidize a hospital instead of a golf course, fine. It’s her money. It’s her meal.
Taxes are rising fast, and deficits faster. The long-term future is looking bleak.
The local left has a sparkling opportunity to turn a long-standing weakness into an electoral strength. Leftists want credibility with centrists. They can have it if they jump on it. But others may beat them to it.
Vince Emmer is a financial consultant in Gypsum. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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