We Should Stop Plowing Snow and Other Tales

Tom Foley has an article in today’s Hartford Courant that tries to cover the difference between a “current services budget” and a “current year budget.” Unfortunately, the author’s strived-for clarity never really develops and the logical premises for the argument are clouded by characterizations which the author never examines for their accuracy. He writes:

The current services budget is a concept that turns boring government accounting into “Alice in Wonderland” where bureaucrats, politicians and advocates for government spending can pitch their causes and confuse their constituents to suit their purposes.

I’m always amazed at how politicians ridicule themselves in their own expressions. Tom Foley, if memory serves, ran for Governor. He, therefore, is a politician. Secondly, he characterizes current politicians as “advocates for government spending,” a brute force tag that’s never actually supported in his article. If, for example, a politician advocates for modern plumbing in a public school is this person looking out for interests of children or are they a government spending advocate?

But now to the meat of the matter. Foley writes:

The current services budget is a projection of future revenues and spending that assumes tax policy and state services remain as they are in the current year. So, in planning for expenses for the next budget, it factors in anticipated wage and benefit increases for the same number of state workers and inflationary increases in the cost of things the government buys. It is heavily manipulated. The estimated current services budget for the general fund for the fiscal year ending in June 2012 is $1.75 billion higher than this year’s spending, an increase of 9.8 percent. This is ridiculous.

There are lots of accuracy questions here. First off, I’m not claiming that Foley is incorrect in the numbers. But the terms “heavily manipulated” and “ridiculous” are opinions. The reader would have to conclude a budget that anticipated reductions and saw lots of spending reductions would not be “ridiculous” and “would not be manipulated.” This language amounts to codes “politicians” use to “manipulate” an audience. Foley continues:

Using the current services budget degrades the clarity and quality of debate on the budget. It enables bureaucrats to pad budgets and move the goal line in the hope of achieving ever higher funding. It enables politicians to obscure bad news and fabricate good news. It enables advocates of government spending to demagogue anyone who questions the ever-increasing funding for their causes. It confuses the concerned citizen who is trying to understand what is going on.

Here, Foley continues to “characterize” rather than argue from premises. Budget’s are “padded,” they play football, they’re “fabricated,” and politicians are “demagogues,” and simply push “causes.” It may be that new plumbing at the schools, sound proofing, and winter snow clearing are causes and that politicians are indeed “demagogues” but Foley would have been more effective if he’d used evidence or even specific examples of “padding” and “demagoguery.” Honest disagreement can be had on these items.

I can consider my own house budget in comparison to the budget the state has to put together, as can other people, and those who don’t have work are in much much worse situation. Next year, for example, I will see major loss of purchase power for several reasons. The first is a personal hit to my paycheck, as I will not be seeing a raise and my paycheck has already been reduced. I will not, however, be victorious when I ask the local oil company to please see to a reduction in the price of home heating oil and so on. Oil will rise in cost no matter my “opinion.” Those improvements I looked forward to will not see fruition, either, which would have helped to reduce the cost of oil for me; note that the oil company is just as concerned as I am, as the driver of the truck will see his own pay cut also. In the mean time, I’ll call the local grocer and ask them if they could please reduce the price of milk and butter commensurate with my own diminishing return. Economically, it is difficult to tighten the belt in such a way that reducing outlay elsewhere will make up for the cost of rising prices across sectors as most people have few options for boosting revenue. I could, of course, cut out every unnecessary purchase or obligation. But this is where I connect to the macroeconomic world: demand across the economy would go down, making problems worse. The dudes at the wine shop are trying to make a living too and they’re supply chain reaches into Europe and South America.

One element Foley doesn’t cover, and this is rare in debates about “government spending,” is the vision of government’s role by people across the board (as a rich person, his worries are less when it comes to rising prices). Should it be the municipality’s responsibility to plow the streets? Or is it the individual’s role? At the turn of the century Hartford decided that it was its role to manage water supply to the population not private businesses (to the chagrin of business but to the profit of people who would not have had the means to pay for a company to lay pipe in their neighborhood). Partly, this had to do with ethical responsibilities and with efficiency. We could have honest debate about snow removal. I could simply pay for a plow company to do my section of the street (this, of course, would require government to dictate what my portion of the street actually is). Would this amount to higher costs or to lower? I would need help with that calculation. At this point in the day, all I have to call on is Plato’s Republic.

Final note:
In addition to the two opposing views on the electoral system, the Courant would have done a service to readers, the very kind of service Foley aspires to (“clarity of information”), if it had provided space for an opposing view on the budget.