Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Too Much Talk About Taxes

There’s too much talk about taxes. Our conversations about government all seem to revolve around whether the tax rate is high or low, or who should pay more or less. We need to talk more about what we want government to do.

Do we want good schools? Education is not cheap. Teachers and administrators are highly trained professionals who should be well paid. Textbooks and science labs must be constantly renewed. If we want schools to create well-informed citizens who are ready to enter the highly technological world of commerce, we need to make constant investments in our schools. As we have talked more about taxes, the American public education system, elementary, secondary, and university, has suffered. Put “cutting teachers” into a web search and you’ll see hundreds of articles about school districts across the country eliminating teachers and increasing class size. Public universities have raised their tuition in response to large cuts in state funding. The promise of an affordable college education for everyone is fading.

Do we want safe roads and bridges? If we don’t want more tragedies like the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, we must invest billions in our aging infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our public infrastructure a grade of D+ and estimates that $3.6 trillion are needed over the next six years.
In Illinois alone, there are over 4000 bridges rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

Do we want a national park system open to all that welcomes us when we want to experience nature? As our population keeps growing and becoming more mobile, more resources will be needed to maintain the public treasures we have set aside forever. The maintenance backlog in our national parks has grown from $8 billion to more than $11 billion over the past five years. Parks are open for shorter periods, visitor centers and campgrounds have been closed, and educational programs have been cut.

Do we want to be competitive in science and business? Although those who only want to talk about taxes pretend it isn’t true, our government’s investments in science are the foundation of our economic success, from cell phones to computers to logistics. Every “self-made man” depended on a host of publicly funded programs to create their success. If we want the US to continue to be a leader in innovation, and thus to provide good jobs for Americans, we need to publicly fund communications and transportation networks, laboratory research, and, most of all, education.

Do we want to help the less fortunate among us? What kinds of outcomes do we wish for tornado and flood victims, abandoned children, the blind, the sick and the poor? It might be amusing to hear the tax-cutters scream for government aid when their districts are hit with devastating storms, except that their constituents, and all the rest of us, are hurt by insufficient funding for federal and state emergency relief services. And what about the poor? Are they to blame for their own plight? Are we better off when we keep a few more dollars in our own pockets while our neighbors go hungry?

These are the questions we should be discussing. Only if we know what we really want as a nation, can we decide how much to spend and where to get the money.

We can’t make good decisions if we simply say “no new taxes”. That’s backwards, deciding on the bottom line before we even know what we want to achieve as a state or nation.

Here in our local District 117, we are having the right conversations, under the banner of “Vision 117”. Citizens and decision-makers have been talking about what kind of schools we want. Funding is an important issue, but not the driving force behind every decision. The community has reached consensus around a plan that is not the cheapest, but rather best represents our collective educational vision.

The tax cutters don’t want to ask these questions and don’t want to hear our answers. When the heads of state agencies told our state legislators what it would mean for their departments if the state income tax rate was cut, the tax cutters dismissed their testimony as invalid. Those people who are screaming about what a disaster it will be if our income tax in Illinois stays at 5%, never talk about the Republican states with higher income tax rates: Idaho (7.8%), Nebraska (6.8%), Kansas (6.45%) Wisconsin (7.75%), and Iowa (8.98%).

We don’t have to make these investments. We could let our schools, our roads, our parks, and our society deteriorate. We could watch the wealthiest Americans wall themselves off in gated compounds with every imaginable service, while our public services disappear. We could believe the tax fanatics who don’t value anything labeled “public”.

Some people only care about how many dollars they can keep in their own pockets. That’s fine for them. But putting our public welfare in their hands would be foolish.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 20, 2014

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Putting People in Boxes

On May 2, Jay Jamison, our local columnist, wrote that I think Americans are stupid, too stupid to manage their own affairs. He didn’t mention me personally, but his column repeated several times the idea that “the left views Americans as too stupid to make informed decisions.” Since I’m sure he puts me on “the left”, I get lumped together with everyone else he disagrees with. Too bad he didn’t ask me what I really think. He might learn something.

I think that putting all your political opponents into a box labeled “stupid”, “unpatriotic”, or any other nasty characterization, is a substitute for thinking. If everybody on the other side is incompetent or evil, then you don’t have to think about what they say. All their analyses of society must be wrong and their policy proposals defective.

That easy way out leads to troubling consequences. When I was young, each side of the argument about American involvement in Vietnam created boxes for their opponents. Many anti-war protesters labeled the police “pigs” and assumed every man in uniform was a blind tool of “the system”, willing to do violence to peaceful citizens who offered legitimate criticisms of our foreign policy. But some policemen had children in the anti-war movement; others recognized the futility of our involvement in Vietnam and the duplicity of our government’s claims about how we were winning. But it was easier to call them all pigs.

Many police, and those who gave them orders, put all protesters into a different box – long-haired pot-smoking hippies who had no discipline, no ambition, no guts. So the ideas of the anti-war movement must be drug-induced fantasies, the motivations of protesters must be juvenile. In fact, the war was protested by housewives and grandmothers, doctors and professors, soldiers and veterans. But it was easier to swing a billy club at protesters, if you thought they were all unworthy.

This tendency to denigrate all political opponents led to the worst excesses of both sides. The FBI assumed that Martin Luther King was a communist, so they tried to undermine the civil rights movement. Anti-war militants planted bombs in government buildings and killed innocent people. Before the Ohio National Guard pointed their guns at unarmed students at Kent State and shot them, they put all protesters in a box labeled “dangerous radicals”.

In fact, it’s pretty easy to see that “the other side” is just like us. Some are smart and some are not. Some are motivated by a generous desire to help others, and some are just self-interested.

So does “the left” think Americans are stupid? A big claim like that needs a lot of evidence. Jamison gives exactly zero examples. He cites an article by Bobby Jindal, the Republican Governor of Louisiana, as sufficient evidence, without telling us its content. Jindal isn’t much of an authority on Democrats: he is a professional partisan and is among the nation’s least popular governors. The article that Jamison cites provides the usual Republican talking points about the Affordable Health Care Act. Maybe Jamison doesn’t actually cite any evidence from Jindal’s article because it doesn’t prove his point about “the left” at all; see for yourselves at cnn.it/1kohkdd.

Of course, it’s easy to find examples of Democrats saying things that imply they think that voters are not well-informed. Politicians do it all the time. Many positions of leading Republican politicians are founded on their hope that voters have no idea what’s going on. Think about “death panels”, or their claim that global warming is a hoax, or their contention that massive election fraud is a justification for voter ID laws.

Shall we alter Jamison’s claim slightly to say that “the right” assumes the average American is ignorant? No. That would be falling into the same we/they, evil/good dichotomy that makes his article analytically useless. Some people on both sides say dumb things or say things which imply that voters are dumb. Others say smart things and treat voters as able to distinguish true from false. Blanket condemnations of the other side, by politicians or columnists, show little respect for the intelligence of readers or voters.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 13, 2014

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Springtime in the Garden

For a gardener, spring is the most exciting season. One day, what looked dead shows signs of life. As long as humans have understood the natural world, spring has meant rebirth. Easter, the celebration of resurrection, and Passover, the re-creation of liberation, have their origins even further back in human social development, as do Holi, the Hindu festival of colors, and Nowruz, the first day of the year in ancient Persia. Human nature celebrates nature itself.

Springtime means cleaning. Things pile up during winter, inside and outside the house: leaves, boxes, twigs and branches, dust, mud. When the house is finally opened to the air, when warmth opens dormant plants, the big mess that winter leaves becomes apparent. Once the ground thaws, the most pressing garden work is spring cleaning. One garden after another gets a face lift, a hard scrubbing, a close shave. Removing all that wrinkly brown dead stuff reveals what has already begun. Smooth bright green sprouts are pushing through to the light.

Springtime means repair. Winter is harder on material objects than on the resilience of people. Although we may come back in the spring with more weight and a painful back, the warmth and movement of spring allow our bodies to repair themselves. The roof can’t repair itself. Garden objects that stand up during the winter take a beating and need our help. This winter a small pergola that we acquired with our house many years ago finally listed too far to ignore. Broken branches on our biggest tree, a sugar maple that has never been tapped, needed pruning. Stones and bricks that mark our gardens mysteriously twist and glide a bit each winter, until they no longer look the way we want. By repairing winter damage, we impose our constructive will on the forces of nature.

Springtime means anticipation. The shoot poking through the soil and the bud swelling on the branch mean flowers will soon appear. Eight months after we first moved in, our inaugural spring displayed the gardening dreams of past owners. Pointy sprouts became daffodils, the carpet of bright green shoots grew into lilies, while magnolias, viburnum and dogwood blossomed. Since then, I have added a dozen flowering trees and spread bulbs across many gardens. Now, well before flowers open, I relish the anticipation of their color and smell. I know they will be lovely, but exactly when will it happen? Although we’ve seen it all before, the final opening of protective leaves, unveiling flowers of many shapes and sizes, is always new and renewing.

Springtime means hope. Will there be more blossoms than last year? Will life get better? Unexpected blooms and unforeseen popular movements erupt in spring. The gathering of armed rebels in Lexington and Concord in 1775, the meeting of the Estates General in Paris in 1789, and the liberalization of communism in Prague in 1968 were encouraged by the hopes of spring.

By the time spring ends, many of these hopes have disappeared. The sweet spring flowers have dropped onto the garden, leaving dead heads that call for more work. The ubiquitous garden undesirables threaten to drown their weaker neighbors that we insist are the real plants. Many of winter’s messes are still all around; humans have not repaired all the things we have broken.

We keep trying. Nature and human nature cannot be reduced to our arbitrary rules of good behavior and proper breeding. When we try too hard for perfection, we make the worst mistakes: the 19th-century passion for perfecting human society became sterilization, mass deportations and genocide in the 20th. But still we must seek improvement.

Gardening takes patience. Planting some seedlings this year won’t make a garden next year or the year after. A clear vision of the future must be combined with the patience to keep tending immature plants. Even more patience is needed to nurture the immature children, the immature organizations and programs and systems we create. Not every plant will survive, nor look right if it does. Not every political reform will produce the desired results. Gardening and politics require constant correction.

Maybe we can do more than produce good gardens. Maybe we can produce better societies, if we keep trying.

Spring always comes back. We get another chance.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 6, 2014