There are several of us in the news business who became fans of the late HBO series The Wire and, by buying the boxed sets or borrowing from friends, have worked our way into the fifth season of that drama which is based in a city, Baltimore, that plainly has problems very akin to our own.
Since we'll neither invite nor inflict spoilers, we'll just say that the fictional mayor of Baltimore found himself faced with a situation whereby a proposed solution to his city's financial ills was perceived as clashing with various purely political imperatives of a personal sort. In short: Would His Honor do the right thing and raise enough money to keep city services afloat or keep himself clean for the next election season?
Sorry to be so vague about the situation, but work your own way through this very rewarding drama and you'll see what kind of fix the make-believe Baltimore mayor was in (similar to one, we are told, that his real-life equivalent was confronted by).
It should already be clear that the dilemma hinted at here is, in one form or another, the situation faced by our own city, our own county, and our own state — all of which jurisdictions have been backed into a corner by a seriously declining economy. If the bottoms haven't dropped out yet, they are giving way at the seams, and those ominous words that used to be confined to the history texts some of us grew up on — "Great Depression" — are being dusted off for comparison's sake.
It used to be that raising taxes was the solution at hand. And certainly both our mayors and our current governor, as well as their legislative bodies, have already chosen to avoid that alternative — largely for the obvious reason of avoiding political taint. But they may have no choice, short of undertaking the kind of thoroughgoing tax reforms that they have already shied away from (a state income tax, a local payroll tax, increases in this or that set of fees, etc.).
Aside from the fact that consumers feel themselves to be overtaxed, there are built-in obstacles. To repeat: State revenues, based on sales tax, will continue to decline so long as consumption does. Local taxes, based on property assessments, will continue to decline as long as property values do, and that's very much an ongoing state of affairs.
The public officials confronted with such untenable choices find themselves in a trap from which extrication is difficult, if not impossible. As one example: Governor Phil Bredesen, a former health-care executive, has seen his candidacy to become secretary of health and human services imperiled by criticism of the cuts he had (or contends that he had) to make in TennCare, the state's once-vaunted system of health-care insurance.
It's almost a case of You Can't Get There From Here, and President Obama is confronted with that conundrum at present. We regard his stimulus plan to be a valiant effort to regenerate a dangerously stagnant economy and hope he's on his way to a long-term solution. But the fact is, he doesn't know what comes next, either.
All of us will just have to await the next installment to find out.