Opinion » Editorial

Arithmetic Don’t Lie


Former President Bill Clinton is considered to have given former President Barack Obama a serious boost toward re-election at the Democratic National Convention of 2012. That was by means of an elongated  address, both eloquent and something of a vamp, in which Clinton, among other things, credited his fellow Democrat with possessing a sagacity, one lacked by the competing Republicans, in dealing with the ravages of the then-recent economic crash.

Clinton said he could sum up the difference in one word: "Arithmetic!" The line brought down the house, but it was more than good theater. There was a sense in that statement that made it more than a punchline, that in fact summed up one of the fundamental differences between the two major parties in their recurrent debates over fiscal policy, wherein the Republicans talk (but don't necessarily practice) solvency, while the Democrats prefer to emphasize (not always wisely) financial remedy.  

There came a similar point of epiphany Monday night in the official Democratic response to Republican Governor Bill Lee's 2020 State of the State address, delivered by state Senate minority leader Jeff Yarbro of Nashville. It is worth quoting at length. In one of his several concessions to the principle of governmental activism, Lee boasted about the $117 million he proposed adding to the salaries of the state's teachers. "$117 million," Yarbro mused. "That's just a little bit more than the $110 million that vouchers are supposed to cost the state once they're fully implemented. So in a lot of ways, we're not even sure if we caught up with last year's losses before we we start filling in the holes.

"So it's good news. But it's not clear that we've really made the steps that we need to. Tennesseans don't expect their state government to spend foolishly; they expect us to live within our means. But just imagine how much more we could afford if we weren't wasting money on private school vouchers. If we weren't sending almost $1 billion of childcare TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] funds back to the federal government, if we weren't sending $1 billion a year worth of Medicaid funding  back to the federal government.

"And this is a big deal. The governor announced a lot of initiatives tonight focused on mental health care and substance abuse, and make no mistake about it, some of those ideas are great, ideas that we all support. But here's the reality: Tennessee  could spend less money to reach more communities and help more people if we just simply join the other 36 states that have expanded Medicaid. That $300 million in initiative could go toward shoring up TennCare, providing new access and safety nets and pilot projects. That's $300 million that could have gone straight into public education, if we had just expanded."

Back in 2012, we found Clinton's point to make good sense, and we find what Yarbro had to say on Monday night just as agreeable. In the jam-packed week of public events we've just gone through, we were mightily impressed by Shakira's rendition of "Hips Don't Lie" at halftime of the Super Bowl. And Yarbro's numbers: They don't lie either. Less sexy, maybe, but profoundly more serious.

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