Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Danger, Will Robinson

Or, A Crisis of Governance

A few of you have noted a tone in my recent commentary on political developments that is more unhappy, even angry at times, and more despairing than is my usual wont. From the inside, I would have to say that's correct.

And there's certainly anger to go around. Trump supporters angry with me for not "attacking" Hillary the way I have made pointed comments about The Donald, and adherents of Secretary Clinton's who get agitated if I say anything even remotely critical of her stances, choices, or career in general.

Then there's the admittedly less hostile, but usually quite sharp questions from those who say Johnson or Stein are the answer, when my statements don't seem to leave any room for the third-ish party option as the answer.

So to sum up as well as I can, because I simply have to let all this go for a stretch: I do believe we are working through – not heading into, but we're in it right now – a period of crisis in governance in the United States. We would be in this phase at this moment even if we did not also have the twin challenges added on over the last year of overseas terror knocking on the door and whispering into the ears of easily disturbed individuals; and of chronic, aching, recurring injustice along with weakening economic opportunity causing a reaction in and around racial and ethnic minority communities to the public instruments of governance.

Make no mistake, police… and fire, and local officials, and juvenile court employees* are all seen by the public as instruments of governance. Of "The Man" as the facile phrase has it, but opposition to and resentment of "The Man" is a long-standing attitude in American culture that also cuts across racial boundaries. It's nothing new, but the unwillingness to hear, accept, and obey the authority of governance is increasing, and the public trust in governance even when it's close to home is weakening.

But I note those headline items simply to say they are intensifiers of the deeper problems of what I see as a crisis of governance that neither party is either addressing, nor are they seemingly able to address. And I have yet to see how any of the many "third" parties have a plan to engage with these questions I want to raise other than a set of assumptions that start with near dictatorial power over the entire body politic and the economy as a whole, so I retreat to a politics of the possible. I may be missing an outright adjustment through wholesale revolution coming down the pike, but I'm not quite that mordant yet.

First, cheap shots at Paul Ryan aside, we can't pay for what's already on the table. One can argue the rich should pay more and get cheers and majority votes; you can suggest there is fraud and abuse and get little argument, but in sum, what we currently say we as a nation and as states (we'll leave cities and municipalities out of it for the moment) are going to spend, based on demographics and circumstances and certain perfectly just entitlements (starting with veteran benefits promised, but not ending there), is an amount that at SOME point in the not-too-distant future cannot be paid.

We are clever in the modern era in the West as to how to keep spending what we do not have, but those machinations will soon run their course, and pipers must be paid, bulldogs fed, cake-eating no longer a useful recommendation. We can startlingly increase taxes, with uncertain results in productivity and innovation, but even optimistic understandings of those impacts still quietly note that there's a stopping place, a tipping point not far beyond.

But the nature and complexity of modern society means that there are many who, through no fault of their own, cannot cope as independent actors, as autonomous individuals, as market consumers of employment options, insurance coverage, or educational opportunities. There is a new level of cognitive and behavioral competence needed to thrive in the society we've assembled to date, and that's aside from the effects of illness, injury, and that insulting inevitability, aging and its discontents.

So we have to figure out how to tax and/or tariff our way into spending how much to do what things – the status quo, in health care, in welfare, in defense, in education is entirely unsustainable. Just to say "stay the course" is the same as saying "steer it into the ditch, Alfred" so we have to look at corrections, adjustments – but whether it's Hillary or Ryan, there's a harsh pelting rain of critical hailstones coming to anyone who actually has the nerve to make specific suggestions.

Since we do this, in a delightfully bi-partisan manner, we are trying to get away with silently spending more and more of our state budgets on health care and education (including Medicaid, disability support and services, and public employee benefits as health care, and both K-12 & public higher ed along with pre-school/day care in many states as education). It's over half in those two categories pretty much everywhere, with many going past 70%. To avoid raising state taxes, and/or to claim one is lowering state taxes, we shove more and more obligations down to local units – counties, townships, cities, school districts, now even watershed districts and other such entities – forcing them by legislative fiat to spend what they don't have, and they becoming the unhappy ones having to go back repeatedly to voters for tax increases, income and property.

I am always amazed at the variety of ways when I say this next that partisans will try to tell me this is not so, or if it is it's only because I'm some kind of idiot: when I sit down and add up all the ways my wife and I pay taxes, from 1040 Federal to FICA, state income and sales taxes, local property and income taxes, assessments and fees and all such that go to public entities of every sort that I must pay on pain of being a violator of the law with the penalties that come with that – it's right up against 40% of our gross income. $4 of every $10 we're supposedly paid. Jan. 1 to Apr. 30 of the year I work just to pay civic obligations.

You can say without my thinking less of you: so what? 40% of your gross income to the body politic, to the common weal, for public goods? That's fair enough, isn't it, for those needs and people you earlier noted need our shared support?

Sure. I might even, most days, agree with you. What I'm not so sure about is that, looking at Illinois pension debt and overall student debt and current interest paid on the national debt and deferred maintenance here and there: why should I think we're going to be anywhere this side of 50% in the relatively near future, just to keep up with what we've ALREADY obligated ourselves to? And for my peace-minded friends, God bless you, but if we completely stopped funding the military, it's about 15% of all annual federal expenditures (https://www.nationalpriorities.org/budget-basics/federal-budget-101/spending/). Aside from economic questions as to regional impacts of stopping that outlay (what happens to all the bases and their communities, the plants making helmets, etc.), you defer the day of reckoning, but it's not THE answer. It might be part of an answer, to which I'd be happy to discuss in sum, but it's not the way to shove my whole concern off the table into the dustbin of happiness.

I am certain, to three decimal points, that my taxes will go up further in the future. I'm not even that upset about it. Honest. But I am also certain that at some point when most working people are realizing that they are all "paying" over 50% of their gross income to governance, we're going to see even more taxpayer anger and unpleasantness than we do right now.

So I'm not as focused on rolling back spending or starving the beast (sorry, Grover!) as I am in saying it can't continue to increase. Both the net spending, and the total taxes. A line has to be drawn. We're talking about a wall between us and Mexico, but not blocking off this boundary which I think is in sight, and we're heading there for a line on our side of the horizon, picking up momentum. How do we stop? No one is talking about that. Not the Dems, not the GOP. The Republicans get to say they have rhetoric in that direction, but no policy. The Democrats argue that we don't need policy, because "the money is out there." Let's put Fox Mulder in charge of the Treasury, eh?

And immigrants aren't the problem. They just aren't. They pay more in taxes than they collect, and are a net positive into this worsening equation. I think we should protect and defend our borders, and I think "open borders" advocates are part of another failed economic discussion, but it's not part of what I think is on the table. Stopping immigration entirely or limiting it drastically, though, will simply speed up the arrival of the day of reckoning I see.

So point one: when enough working families realize they are paying over 50% of their gross income in taxes, there's going to be a reaction. And it won't be thoughtful or careful or compassionate, it will be a meat-axe into vital organs, chopping for speed and not precision. We have to talk about this, and neither party (IMHO) is doing so.

Point two may not take me as long to lay out, but I'm still wanting your tolerance and forbearance to follow me into a concern that is far too easily pulled off into culture war ditches, left of center and right of centet either way being a ditch.

We are in the middle of – again, not coming, we're in it, and trying to figure out where it's taking us as we drive it, like navigating a strange unpaved road at night in the fog – a social experiment almost without precedent in human history. It has two sides of what I would also assert is the same coin.

On one side is the shift to single parenthood and away from marriage as a core social institution. Keep in mind, I am not preaching here; I am a preacher, but this is my attempt at a neutral political analysis, even as I admit my own perspective. But demographically it's not a partisan point. We are now moving to and through the 50% mark of children born to unmarried women. The number of children being raised in single-parent households is, again, unprecedented in human history. It is a social experiment, whatever you think about how we got here or the relative merits of marriage or parenthood historically. And yes, many can tell true tales of excellent single mothers raising great children. Got it. True. Met many, see many around me now. That's not the point. The question is: what happens to a society where single-parenthood is the norm? There are downsides, economic and cultural; you can argue that we should protect single mothers through redistribution even beyond the current (broken) child support enforcement model, and I take many of the points to be made there on children's behalf, but the point is that we simply don't know how this is all going to play out over the next generation or two, because there's so little experience in human history with doing child rearing and culture-bearing in this fashion. I see cracks and strains in current institutions due to this demographic shift, and the changes are many and manifold and still rippling out.

The other side of that coin is, as I alluded to, a very real socio-political pressure to make sure that the losses entailed in shifting from two parent homes to single parent homes, along with a concern about the needs and issues of young adults launching their own lives without the same level of family support once generally available, giving rise to new political demands. There is a sense that a radically individual, privatized way of living should be possible for anyone and everyone, and any public policy that privileges families and married relationships is biased against a more privatized, solo set of life choices. I'm not condemning, I really don't think I'm preaching, I'm simply pointing out: this costs more. Ask any divorced couple doing shared parenting, and look at any household where people are coming together across generations out of economic need.

Yes, there is a certain justice in making sure no one has to live as Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë were cautioning us about 200 years ago: an unwanted extra wedged into a spare room just to survive as a neglected dependent. Yet we're seeing an also unprecedented number of Americans and Westerners generally living more and more of their lives entirely solo – just as many progressive critics of our culture are pointing to the relative cost of our way of life versus most of the rest of the world. 20% of American adults are never-marrieds, and that number is rising; figures on living solo are harder to get at, but all indications are that something that used to be 1 in 7 is increasing to 1 in 6.

So with much verbiage, there's my two points of concern with the (to me) vacuity of our political debate right now. On one hand, we're heading to an inflection point where a majority of working families are paying over half their gross income for governance; on the other hand, we're atomizing our society into private spheres and individual obsessions, with less and less connection to others on an ongoing basis (I'll just say "Bowling Alone" here and leave it at that).

Our acceptance of porous borders is changing, and we'll debate nuances of how to manage that increased control of who can come into this country, but it's not a key issue in what's generally problematic in America. Islamofascist terror groups are going to keep trying to rattle the West with their hopeless and violent ideology, which will have to be addressed with our blood and treasure, spent under closer scrutiny by US voters, which is as it should be. Sexual expression is something that is more various and more public than we've seen in our own past, but it neither breaks my leg nor picks my pocket, as Thomas Jefferson said about the question of his neighbor worshiping many gods, or none.

And our vexed racist history, which warped the writing of the Declaration of Independence, defaced the construction of our Constitution, and brutally drug us into a deadly Civil War – we are still working at coming to terms with how we allowed that, what we've done as a nation to ourselves, and how we can complete the healing imperfectly done to date. Like a poorly set broken arm, it may have to be rebroken before we can get to true health and see ourselves as truly healed. So much more has been brought out of that particular national closet, and set out in broad daylight, and we're working on it, even if we're far from done.

But I have to look at the future as I anticipate it, and the candidates as they're given me, to answer the question "what is to be done?" What will we do about taxes heading to over half my efforts, in limiting spending or optimizing how it's collected (and "more from you, less from me" is not an answer!); how we can maintain social structure and civic engagement in a radically privatized culture from birth to old age – those are the questions that I need to hear asked, and wrestled with.

And I don't think anyone is even close to putting those two areas front and center. So I don't know who is the "best candidate" in that absence, and all I can offer right now are my words, and my ongoing concerns. If you want to hear how those play out for me in a religious context, for our faith communities, see my Saturday columns in the local paper, and come hear my sermons on Sundays and teaching on Saturdays. For politics, this is what you get, and you're welcome to it.

*I am a juvenile court contract employee, and as such, see some of these reductions of respect and cooperation with court and school staff first-hand, but with the lack of detachment that comes with being seen as "The Man" at times. So I'm admitting my bias right here.

No comments:

Post a Comment