30 Sep 2011
I just read an interesting essay on the state of city and local governments in the US by Michael Lewis (thanks to Global Guerillas for the link). He basically makes the argument (and quite convincingly) that the federal government won’t default because it can push its deficits down to the state level, and that the states won’t default because they can push their deficits down to the city/local level. The city and local governments, however, are screwed, because the only people that they push the deficit onto are the people who are broke, refuse to pay more taxes, or both. While I agree with the essay and found it very informative (and somewhat depressing), it was also lacking a couple of things.
First, the essay explains that an increasing percentage of local budgets are devoted to pensions and benefits for public employees. With the way that medical costs thave been going, is it any surprise that this is bankrupting us? It would be too easy to lay all of the blame on the public employees for this (I’m not saying that they don’t share in some of it, however), but I refuse to say that they don’t deserve health care. Everyone does. And the sooner we recognize that, the sooner we stop bankrupting ourselves pretending they don’t.
Second, it starts off with the premise of problems being pushed from the national to the local level, and the essay basically follows that structure, analyzing increasingly local governments until it gets to the city of Vallejo, CA and finally Vallejo’s fire department. Part of the problem here is that Lewis never ties this back in with the problems at the national level. He never points out that maybe if we weren’t spending so much money on our military, we might actually have money to spend on maintaining services.
Finally, much of the bleakness of the article comes from the fact that it proposes no solutions. Obviously, this is a complex issue with no easy solution, but even the suggestion that we as a society become more involved with our politics, vague as that statement is, would have been helpful. Delivering bad news with no suggestion of how to deal with it isn’t exactly helpful. As a society, we are facing many problems, and one of the big hurdles that keeps us from acting is a feeling of helplessness.
So, what would I suggest? What I said earlier. Become more active in community and politics. And by this I don’t mean voting. If you think that simply voting every couple of years is sufficient to ensure a functioning government, I would urge you to pay attention to the news. Instead, I suggest that you educate yourself about the issues on the ballot, and then the issues that your representatives are voting on. Once you understand enough about an issue to have a stance on it, vote or contact your representative. Furthermore, become active in your local community, they have hearings on what they are doing all the time. If you can’t be bothered to participate, then you shouldn’t waste everyone else’s time complaining when things don’t work out how you wanted. I know this sounds like a lot of work, a lot of reading, writing, attending meetings. It would be unreasonable to expect everyone to spend 20 hours a week doing this stuff. How about one hour, then? How about one hour writing an e-mail or attending a community meeting? How about listening to NPR on your way to work? How about subscribing to an RSS feed of a news site or two? How about taking a chance at being wrong and assuming that the person who you disagree with is trying to make the world a better place? Is that too much to ask? The problems we face are not ones that will be solved by simply voting the right person into office, the problems are simply too big and complex to be faced by individuals. Only as a community that is actively pursuing the greater good will we have a fighting chance.