May 27, 2011 in City

No revenue problem, just every other problem

By The Spokesman-Review
 

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Read archived columns at spokesman. com/columnists.

Now that the state – by which I mean all of us, in combination, led by our leaders – has arrived at an utter failure of a budget, it’s good to be reminded that no amount of human pain will ever change the tune of the oblivious.

“We don’t have a revenue problem.”

This is what Kevin Parker, who represents us in Spokane’s 6th District, had to say after the Washington Legislature passed a bill that recovered a $5 billion deficit entirely from teachers, schools, disabled adults, college students and the homebound elderly – without raising a penny in new money from any source. Not a single closed loophole. Not a dime of new taxation on any candy bar or bank loan or boob job.

It was, top to bottom, pathetic, and it’s a failure we can all share – from our knee-jerk approval of Tim Eyman’s initiatives, to our legislators’ and governor’s unwillingness to challenge the conventional wisdom about taxation, to the persistent, nefarious rhetoric about “revenue” that rises constantly like methane at a dairy.

“We don’t have a revenue problem.”

I guess “not having a revenue problem” means … what, exactly? Here’s how Parker seems to formulate it: there’s $4 billion more in state tax revenue expected to come in this biennium compared with 2009-2011. That biennium was the worst ever, the rock bottom so far, and we raided the piggy bank and relied on the federal government to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

In other words, that extra money – which went to schools and health care and other non-revenue-problems – wasn’t “revenue.”

“We don’t have a revenue problem.”

We don’t have a revenue problem the way you wouldn’t have a revenue problem if you took a 10 percent pay cut, got a little help from an uncle to cover the shortfall one year, then got a 1 percent bump the following year.

That 9 percent drop? Not a revenue problem. What you have, friend, is a spending problem.

No, “we” don’t have a revenue problem, as long as you’re not counting teachers, whose revenue will be going down by 1.9 percent, or other school employees, whose revenue will drop 3 percent. There’s no problem with our revenues, unless we’re trying to pay for colleges, which will absorb $535 million in cuts and jack up tuition by … however much the colleges want.

The lack of a revenue problem doesn’t include disabled adults, for whom an entire program was eliminated. Or seniors who need in-home care and will get fewer hours of it. Or low-income fetuses – the unborn! – whose at-risk moms won’t be getting nursing support before birth. That means more of them will be born small, with smaller brains, into circumstances that give them very good odds for having extra misery later in life – misery that also happens to be a drain on public revenues.

But, hey – no problem.

Parker’s point may be narrow, but the implications are not. This is a bit of political rhetoric that Republicans drag out all the time. Everyone from John Boehner to Orrin Hatch has deployed it lately, and they spout it pretty much verbatim. The intent seems to be to comfort and placate us with the certainty that the problems facing the state and nation do not require our sacrifice, that the suffering is overstated, that you should place irony quotes around the word “compassion,” that there’s no reason budget cuts ought to be seen as inflicting real pain on real people.

There’s no reason we comfortable folks without a revenue problem ought to feel bad about the very big problems we’re about to inflict on the least among us.

Because there’s no revenue problem. It’s all welfare mothers drawing down the account at the casinos. Pay no attention to the wealthy men behind the curtain.

Besides being a ridiculous falsehood – because it is at the very least a revenue and spending problem – this is also a hoary cliché with a long history. It began, according to an examination of the talking point by Slate, with Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of self-comforting nonsense.

He’s the father of modern conservatism in more ways than one, but one way in particular is growing thornier and more self-contradictory as our federal budget crisis deepens: The party of fiscal responsibility likes to pretend that tax cuts aren’t a “revenue problem.” No: tax cuts produce revenue. And massive cuts in services produce GDP growth. Money does not “trickle up” from poor people, of course, but it certainly does trickle down.

It just takes a long, long time, I guess.

Can you imagine a more self-comforting myth? When my taxes go down, it’s good for everyone. The best thing to do for the poor is unburden the rich.

As for taxes ever going up – as for their ever being a time when people ought to chip in and support schools or cops or libraries or the least among us – well, don’t be silly.

“We don’t have a revenue problem.”

We’ve got way more than 99 problems with this budget. It’s nice to be reminded that revenue ain’t one.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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