By Don Nelson
For my entire journalism career, I’ve been listening to politicians at all governmental levels, and of all political persuasions, utter the same empty clichés when appealing to their constituencies. These ubiquitous assertions are repeated thousands of times, year after year, as if they were handed down from on high and therefore must be true.
For all that they remain meaningless, nutrition-free bonbons tossed to unquestioning audiences.
The two that make me cringe most often are:
• Taxes are too high.
• Government should be run like a business.
These fossilized campaign chestnuts persist because they are safely generic and presumably inarguable.
Not only are they arguable, they are refutable.
Let’s take the first. “Taxes are too high,” just about any office-seeking vertebrate will opine.
The statement is illogical on its face. You cannot know how much of anything is too much if you cannot define what is enough. You have to have a baseline of adequacy before claiming that something is “too much” (or too little, for that matter). Thus my question, the one I’ve been posing for decades: How can you possibly know that taxes are too high? Compared to what, specifically? Which taxes, precisely? At what level should taxes be, exactly? Who are you to make such an assessment?
If, as a politician, you cannot answer those questions you have no business making the claim. I’ve put those very queries to public officials. They typically bluster and evade. Once in a while they can cite a targeted tax that may adversely affect businesses or individuals. They may be right. Still, I want to see the evidence.
As for “government should be run like a business” — that’s even worse, because it is so misleading. You’ll most often hear it from businesspeople running for office. If you do, you may conclude that they have no idea what they’re talking about and should not be allowed anywhere near the gears of government. I say this as someone who has spent most of his career covering either business or government, often at the same time.
Let’s start with a simple premise: Governments are nonprofit service organizations that (with the notable exception of the federal government) are required to produce balanced operational budgets every year. They can only spend what they take in. Their purpose is to attend to the needs of society in general, and to the common purposes we assign to them. There is no profit motive to drive decision-making.
Businesses are for-profit enterprises that operate for different purposes on entirely separate principles, mainly to maximize gain and minimize cost while carving out a successful niche in a marketplace sector. All decision-making serves those ends, even at the most benign companies. It’s the only practical way to survive. Capitalism — famously characterized as the worst possible economic system, except for all the others — inevitably produces winners and losers.
Only someone profoundly ignorant about both government and business would argue that these distinct organizational models should operate the same way.
You object? Again, I would pose questions: Do you mean the businesses that go bankrupt? The businesses that poison our air and water? The businesses that shamelessly rip off consumers and government entities? The businesses that exploit their employees? The businesses that produce staggering wealth for their owners while the gap between rich and poor widens? The businesses that discriminate in any number of ways? The businesses that cut clandestine deals?
That’s how you think government should behave?
Of course, there are thousands of honorable businesses that operate within humane and ethical guidelines and still manage to make sustaining profits. There are many in this community, and I’d like to think the Methow Valley News is one of them. Like other business owners, I try to make the best decisions for my company. But I don’t want to see the Twisp or Winthrop town councils basing their actions on Harvard Business School case studies.
And yes, governments should be expected to make good operational decisions and to be held fully accountable for them. Is there graft? Corruption? Malfeasance? Personal aggrandizement? Just plain incompetence? Sure, and it’s our responsibility as citizens to root those aberrations out. That’s what elections are for. When’s the last time you got to vote on who would be the next CEO of a Fortune 500 company?
I’d prefer to hear politicians urge that we should examine the overall tax structure with an eye to making it more equitable for everyone. Or that government should, when appropriate, employ businesslike considerations, which is not the same as acting like a business. I’m not sure which is more troubling — that the politicians don’t know the difference, or that they think we don’t know the difference.