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Ask Auntie Pinko

February 9, 2006
By Auntie Pinko

Dear Auntie Pinko,

I live in the very red state of Virginia, who as you probably know just elected a Democratic governor (thank goodness). Of course, Republicans are now out in force writing letters to the editor whining about taxes, especially since Governor Kaine is talking about raising taxes for transportation initiatives. I would really appreciate it if you could provide a succinct, talking points type rebuttal to the Republicans' constant anti-tax rhetoric, which they use to beat Democrats over the head. I frequently write letters to the editor, many of which have been published. I would very much like to address this issue in one of my letters and could use some help with an effective concise argument. After all, it's one of the big reasons people give for voting Republican - you know "those tax and spend liberals."

Virginia from Virginia

Dear Virginia,

Gee, it's nice for Auntie to have an easy one to answer from time to time! So many of my readers' questions involve highly complex, ideologically and philosophically ambiguous issues that can't be addressed in a quick, catchy, and cogent answer. It gets a little discouraging, hoping that all the carefully-laid out, many-paragraph answers are understood and effective. But this one - easy! Here's your answer, Virginia:

"Tax-and-spend Democrats are more responsible and better for the state's budget and citizens than borrow-and-spend Republicans who leave our children and grandchildren with crushing debt burdens."

Gosh, wasn't that easy? Catchy, too. "Borrow-and-spend Republicans." Just keep reminding people. What's the smarter option, when you can't reduce your expenses (rarely an option at the state level)?

a) Paying as you go so that people have to have an honest discussion of priorities about transportation, correctional services, education, etc., or...

b) letting people think they can have their cake and eat it, too - build prisons, repair highways, keep universities open and have lower taxes, all the while piling up debt and/or trashing the state's bond rating, with an ugly day of reckoning in the offing?

Nevertheless, appealing as this argument may be, Auntie is going to ask you to consider something else altogether, Virginia.

Reasoning by analogy is always chancy, but think of the state as a family who live in an older, poorly-insulated house with an inefficient heating system, have two elderly, fuel-inefficient cars, and no health insurance. Let's say they have one child in college, one child in high school, one in primary school, and Mom is pregnant again and has had to cut her work hours. Dad makes good money, and they have a savings account they've earmarked to help the kids with college and, hopefully, to retire someday. They sometimes spend money foolishly - overpriced designer clothes, vacations, and dining out, but as their heat bills have gone up and the car repair and college bills have been coming in, they've already cut down a lot on those expenses, though not eliminated them altogether.

Mom calls a family meeting one day to lay out the bad news: they have more bills than they can pay, the furnace is making funny noises, one of the cars broke down again and repairs will be expensive, and the primary schooler needs braces. The family starts arguing:

"Well, if Andrea weren't in college, we'd be able to pay for Jim's braces!"

"Jim will just have to wait for his braces, Andrea will be out of college in a couple of years!"

"We should just take all the money out of our savings account and pay the bills, and hope we can replenish the savings account when Mom goes back to work full-time!"

"We need to stop eating out altogether, never take another vacation, and shop at the thrift store for our clothes!"

"Let's just take out another credit card and put the repairs and the braces on that!"

Each family member making their particular argument also trashes everyone else's argument and refuses to consider any other alternatives, and the family meeting breaks up with everyone mad at everyone else, and no decisions about how to deal with the immediate financial crisis, much less the long-term issues hanging over them.

Does that help illuminate the flaws in how the discussion of state financial management is being conducted? People who reduce the discussion to platitudes like "tax and spend" or even "borrow and spend" (mea culpa!) are actually doing the people of Virginia a great disservice. The state's budget is part of a complex financial structure that has to address both short- and long-term needs of Virginia's citizens, and cover a huge array of needs, all of which are important and valid to some Virginian(s). Focusing on immediate, short-term, "hot button" issues only digs the state deeper into a dangerous hole that threatens the future of Virginia's children.

Rather than perpetuating the pointless "tastes great/less filling" argument, Virginia, why not raise your voice and challenge all your elected representatives, Democratic and Republican, to forego the partisan posturing and be realistic with voters?

Democrats and Republicans both need to accept that some spending they cherish will need to be cut. Republicans and Democrats both need to make unpopular concessions that some spending not only can't be cut, but will have to be increased if the state isn't to end up in a worse hole tomorrow. Democrats and Republicans both will have to stop promising voters lollipops in the form of tax cuts and/or popular new initiatives, and talk honestly about unglamorous necessities. Republicans and Democrats both will need to give up the opportunity to score political points off each other and work cooperatively for the benefit of all Virginians.

But it will never happen unless voters like you tell them that's what you really want, Virginia. Thanks for asking Auntie Pinko!

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