AN IMMODEST PROPOSAL
In the environs of Lake Woe is Me(mphis), all tax increases are "modest," all spending cuts are "severe" and politicians not up for reelection use "only" in front of words like "ten million dollars" at an above average rate. But when incumbents are shaking hands and kissing babies, not a discouraging word is heard about taxes or spending.
They talk about their experience in office and ask us to trust them for another term. They spend mounds of money to buy ad space and airtime to detail the successful programs they have overseen. But one thing they do not talk about is the limits of government and more importantly, the limits of government spending. Neither do their opponents because voters donÕt elect people who tell them what theyÕre not going to get. Nobody ever comes to power by promising too little.
Recent op-ed space was provided by The Commercial Appeal
to our county mayor, sheriff and district attorney to publish earnest requests to keep their budgets intact. Other public officials have joined the refrain with their equally heartfelt pleas. All imply that chaos will reign in the streets if these "essential" services are so much as nicked in the imminent budgetectomy.
This is not an attack on Misters Wharton, Luttrell and Gibbons with whom I became acquainted in 2002 when I ran for the state legislature. They are ethical and devoted public servants. Nor is this an anti-government diatribe.
Although I ran on the GOP ticket, I am not the kind of Republican who thinks that the only good gubmint is a dead gubmint. I like to remind even the most ardent opponents of a centralized bureaucracy, that the U.S. military, inarguably the finest fighting force in the world, is run by the same government they so despise.
\And I have no doubt that these men sincerely believe that everything they do is vital. But so does every politician who cannot fathom that taxpayers might actually tire of being held hostage by veiled public sector threats that without more money, the sky will fall.
There is, however, a legitimate limit to what can be provided by government. There is also a limit to what can be demanded of taxpayers. A wish list by elected officials that contains more and more "essential" services every year cannot co-exist with a growing resistance on the part of citizens to bankroll SantaÕs groaning bag of goodies every budget season. It is impossible to make every boy and girl constituent happy.
A couple of centuries ago, the British political philosopher Edmund Burke opined that taxes are what we pay to live in a civilized society. A couple of decades ago, the American political satirist P.J. OÕRourke quipped that giving money to government is like handing your car keys and a bottle of bourbon to a teenage boy. Neither man is wrong.
It is nave to believe that self-preservation at all costs is the sole province of the public sector. Anyone who has worked in corporate America will testify that managers throughout the ranks will do what it takes to protect their turf and never voluntarily reduce staff or cut spending. They do this because no department in an organization wants to be the one to suffer personnel cutbacks.
Why? Because the more people a division has, the bigger the budget. The bigger the budget, the greater the salary and personal power. The greater the personal power, the more dynamic the career of the manager in question. So, expecting the average executive in any organization to watch over someone elseÕs money is like asking Michael Jackson to babysit.
But a major difference between the public and private sectors is that a manager at Proctor and Gamble doesnÕt get to argue that without more marketing dollars for Tide detergent, the world will collapse under the weight of all that dirt. Cataclysm is the rhetorical stock and trade of government and crime and education are the favorite Chicken Little declarations. This budgetary season is no different.
So I have some suggestions that might work to take this out of the hands of those who cannot, for reasons of absolute subjectivity, manage to find even a penny to cut.
1. Determine how much of the budget must be eliminated to bring us back to the last time we operated in the black. Adjust this for inflation. This is the new budget maximum.
2. Calculate what percentage this reduction represents.
3. Demand that every division, including the executive branch, reduce personnel by this percentage across the job position spectrum; that is from the lowest ranks right up to hizzonerÕs staff.
4. Freeze these numbers at this level for a minimum of five years, at which time an increase would have to be presented at public forums and then voted on by the electorate. We read all the time about the gains in productivity created by technology and the many jobs that have been rendered obsolete. Funny how jobs never seem to disappear in the public sector.
5. Eliminate pay raises of any type until we are operating with a surplus and in the meantime permanently remove any automatic ways to increase pay across the board. Give employees raises if they do more each year with the same resources. Companies across America operate this way, having not only to eliminate raises to remain viable, but to reduce salaries in many instances. Two years ago, the company for whom I now work enacted a 10% pay cut across the board, including the president.
6. Eliminate COLAs. See above.
7. Increase the government workday by thirty minutes, with no additional pay. This ought to minimize the need for additional positions in the future. All salaried people in the private sector work when our bosses tell us with no regard to the clock, only to what must be done. We are not compensated for this. If we comply, we get to keep our jobs.
8. Require that all elected officials be employed in the private sector for at least ten consecutive years before they are eligible for public office. This would instill respect for the real world in ways that cannot be communicated except through experience. A majority of elected officials have spent most, if not all of their professional lives deriving monetary benefit, either in whole or in part, from the public sector.
9. Create a rotating board of unpaid citizens from all walks of life to oversee all government budgetsÑnone of these citizens can be nominated or chosen by elected officials. If they serve, they cannot benefit in any way from their tenure or ever run for office. This creates legitimate obstacles to an entrenched bureaucracy conferring its spoils on citizens for gain at a later time.
10. Assess a fine for any public official who uses the word "only" in front of a number followed by the words "million dollars" in the same sentence and deduct this from his salaryÑthe fine to be equivalent to the percentage by which he seeks to justify the increase.
OÕRourke likes to say that God is a Republican and Santa Claus is a Democrat because God is a rather demanding being who insists on accountability. Santa Claus, on the other hand, might make a list and even check it twice, but seldom distinguishes between the naughty and the nice. ItÕs time for government to realize that there is no Santa Claus.