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Maddening Logic

Since we are squarely in the middle of state budget battles in Raleigh, I thought it might be a good idea to step back from the politics of it all for a quick second and really appreciate the irony of the situation.  While we squabble over the crumbs, they sit back and laugh.  They know this entire budget battle could have been avoided: that teachers could have kept their jobs, the most vulnerable populations would not have to have their support services slashed, and long-term unemployed could still be receiving basic assistance.

Since we are squarely in the middle of state budget battles in Raleigh, I thought it might be a good idea to step back from the politics of it all for a quick second and really appreciate the irony of the situation.  John Morton, the father of false options, would be proud of the work Skip Stam and his cronies have been doing at the General Assembly.  While we squabble over the crumbs, they sit back and laugh.  They know this entire budget battle could have been avoided: that teachers could have kept their jobs, the most vulnerable populations would not have to have their support services slashed, and long-term unemployed could still be receiving basic assistance.

They know all of this, but it really is our fault:  we bought the lies they were selling as truth.

We all know money is a finite resource – either you have it, or you don’t.  You can’t grow it, you can’t print it, and you can’t will it into existence.  You need to get money from someone else who has it, and is willing to give you some of it, usually in exchange for something you have that they want.  This is a basis of an economy – bargained exchange.

But unlike the federal government, North Carolina has not borrowed foolishly or incurred massive debts.  As a state, we pay our bills every year, and despite the fact that we have an incredibly low tax rate and spend less on vital services such as education than almost any other state in the county, we have managed to grow and thrive in an economy where most states have not.

The problem arose when the economy started to decline in 2008, and along with it our tax revenues.  People had less money, so they spent less, made less, and the state therefore took in less.  This was unavoidable in the short-term, and so we cut our collective spending as a result – it was the responsible thing to do.

But as time has gone on, and the economy continued to remain weak, we continued to solve our fiscal problems with cutting.  We ignored the other side of the balance sheet and refused to raise taxes or revenues to keep up with our need for more services.  Problems continued to mount, but there was no political will to do what now was clearly the responsible thing to do – revise our tax structure.  We just continued to cut.

And so we come to the aforementioned John Morton, the 13th century archbishop who argued to King Henry VII that everyone can afford to pay additional taxes.  His logic? The obviously rich could afford to pay because they obviously have plenty of money, and the obviously poor were obviously living frugally and thus had savings and could pay as easily as the rich.  This circular and disingenuous logic became known as Morton’s Fork, and has been studies in philosophical circles for hundreds of years.  Apparently, the Republican majority has been studying some history, because they simply took this logic and flipped it, saying that since we are too poor to raise taxes on anyone, so we will cut services for everyone.

If it were true, it’s not a bad argument to make.  But of course, we aren’t all poor – most of us afford to pay a bit more, and some of us can afford to pay much, much more.  Never mind that cutting services for everyone will only harm the poorest, since the rest of us can afford pick up the slack – I’m sure that’s just a happy coincidence.

And so here we are, now attempting to make cuts upon cuts upon cuts.  We have long since eliminated the fat in the budget – we are now cutting deep into our State’s muscle.  It is this very core, however, that made us so strong a state to begin with, and allowed us to prosper for so long.

We cannot continue down this road forever.  Eventually the good people of North Carolina will begin to see the evidence of an under-funded government on their roads, in their courthouses, in their schools and eventually, in their own homes, and they will demand change.  While some rail against “big government” intrusion, I don’t see any private businesses lining up to fill our potholes for free or educating our children without tax money.  Government exists to fill-in these gaps.

The great fear is that by that point, it may be too late.  A successful state is not measured in dollars – we all understand that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts when it comes to the intangibles of life – but money is necessary.  We need to continue to make North Carolina the kind of place our children want to live in, work in, and raise their families in.  If lawmakers were really concerned with “family values” they would recognize that.

Instead, they continue to cut away at the core of our value.  Make no mistake, we will all pay for this misguided arrogance one way or another: the only real choice is when.

Cross-posted from NCSJP