A cynical national lie put to the test in New York
One of the most reckless and cynical lies of our time is about to be put to the test by New York State’s new governor.
The lie is that politicians really have the will to reduce government and taxes. It is a lie they have ridden to Washington, to state capitals and county seats for a long time. It is a lie that has come, tragically, to define our national politics. To size up its magnitude you would have to go back to Spiro T. Agnew’s successful whopper that the mainstream media are liberal or that the Southern Strategy was anything but a squalid racist ploy. These are the great working lies of our culture and the degree to which they define us is the degree to which we have fallen short of our best aspirations.
The test is Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to cap property taxes at two percent unless sixty percent of local voters override the cap. Every voter in America should focus on this plan. By comparison Washington is a sideshow “a sideshow because we have allowed politicians to get away with the lie that Washington is entirely to blame for our fiscal morass.
This lie has enabled conservatives to attack the social safety net simply because they do not see why the rich should have to worry about the rest of us. And it has enabled Democrats to collect enough centrist votes to win dicey elections. This is the lie that has enabled politicians to destroy unionism and with it the hope of workers for a fair shake.
Here is the situation in New York. The best and brightest are fleeing the state because it has the highest property taxes in the nation. Its young and its old can’t afford to live in their home state, and its middle class is fast disappearing owing largely to the growing chasm between rich and poor and the concentration of wealth in one percent of the American population. The state, having created a treasure in human resources, is exporting it to other states in the same way global corporations are dismantling our prosperity and exporting it while expecting our armed forces to protect them and our government to pamper them.
The New York Times has called the plan a bludgeon where a surgical examination of the underlying causes of high property taxes is required. But knowledgeable critics have responded that only a bludgeon will compel the state’s politicians to confront the issue. The underlying causes have been known for a long time, but the will to address them is lacking.
I think a crucial angle of vision is missing from the viewpoint of The Times, savvy as it is. I think Governor Cuomo’s plan, which resembles other failed gubernatorial initiatives, calls the bluff of the politicians who have been blaming Washington for issues they could and should have addressed at home. These politicians would have us believe that the federal social safety net, engineered largely but not entirely in the Roosevelt era, is the cause of our fiscal crisis. Almost every single one of these liars has held a local office in which he or she could have taken a stand against rising local taxation. But instead they pinned the blame on Washington and its anonymous but highly effective civil service, while persisting in all sorts of patronage, sloppy and often corrupt government at home.
This is the bluff that Governor Cuomo is now calling, and it would be a lost opportunity if the nation focused on the he-said, she-said blather that will inevitably engulf the plan instead of the much larger fact that politicians of every stripe have been conning us about taxes. It would be a shame if the overarching import of this controversy were to be lost in the daily torrent of developments. The mainstream press is historically remiss at holding issues in focus, and the 24-hour cable news cycle has only exacerbated this failing. The real story is lost in its iterations, and finally the public remembers only the last few sound bites.
All government is local. If our liar class really wanted to do something about insufferable taxation it would have the integrity to take a stand at home where it could insist on streamlining regional government, putting a stop to overlap and unnecessary duplication. Washington is an easy target because it’s big and the people who work there are anonymous. But at home you have to fire your cousin and your friend’s brother, and that takes steel, not bullshit. At home you have to look into the faces your decisions are impacting. Few politicians have the stomach for it and all too many hanker to move on to more fertile possibilities for sell-outs and corruption. This is an aspect of our politics that is usually overlooked when we discuss term limits. It may be, as critics of term limits have said, that we need the experience politicians acquire by long service in office, but do we need the corruption that goes with it? Mr. Smith hasn’t been going to Washington or even your county seat for a long time. The professional politician has replaced him, and it is proving almost impossible to get his hand out of our pockets.
Seen in this light the Tea Party is less than an inch deep because if its members were serious about smaller and more efficient government and lower taxes they would serve in their communities. where the issues are. instead of focusing on Washington. But they, like their predecessors, want to go to Washington where they can posture and pretend they’re doing something while the real work is at home. The problem is has worsened dramatically in the last few decades because America no longer has a vigilant local press.
If the Tea Partiers were serious they’d stay home and tend local fields. Bad government starts at home. In the majority of our communities feckless over-development has imposed onerous taxes, ruined the environment and corrupted officialdom, but the Tea Party has nothing to say about that because it wants to stir a kerfuffle in Washington about the social safety net. This is the kind of hypocrisy the New York property tax controversy will expose.
High property taxes have little to do with the social safety net that conservatives are so hot to dismantle. In New York State the majority of communities that have raised taxes about six percent a year on average are run by Republicans, so-called fiscal conservatives. They’re actually pass-the-buck artists, blaming Washington for what they don’t have the spine to redress at home or in Albany.
The nation should watch what happens in New York not because Andrew Cuomo’s is a great idea “it’s an old idea ” but because it has the inherent power to focus the electorate’s attention on the hypocrisy of its elected leaders, many of whom it has just sent to Washington on anti-tax horses.
The Cuomo plan should be called the anti-hypocrisy plan. It may be wrongheaded, as The Times claims, but it is interesting that The Times does not see it as a test of politicians’ honesty. Like other such plans, it may fall victim to Albany’s Byzantine politics, but something significant can be drawn from it if we cast it as a challenge to the so far all too successful lie that our fiscal problems are confined to inside the Washington beltway.
We may be able to sustain the current social safety net “Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, unemployment compensation, student aid, and other programs “but we will most certainly not be able to sustain them if property taxation continues to batter our betrayed work force. To blame these highly visible programs while taking no responsibility for incompetence and mendacity at home is the blackest mark against a political class that lies its way to Washington where it pigs out at lobbyists’ troughs.
Del’s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal Latte’s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother’s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt’s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com