Oblivious to North Carolina's gradual decline

By Rob Schofield | Jul 16, 2013

Conservatives remain in denial about the decline they are inflicting upon the state

“The schools are still open!” This rather self-evident observation has been a constant refrain of conservative lawmakers and activists in recent months as they’ve sought to convince the public (and maybe even themselves) that the destructive state budget cuts of recent years are really “no big deal.” Time and again, these people take to their microphones and keyboards with practiced bemusement to denounce the “chicken little” criticisms of progressives.

You know how it goes: “Mr. Speaker, to hear the criticisms leveled by our liberal friends on the other side of the aisle last year, you would have thought that the entire North Carolina public school system [or the UNC system, or the Department of Environment and Natural Resources – pick your example] would have closed their doors by now. Happily, I’m here to report today that these predictions were greatly exaggerated.” The statement is then greeted by knowing smiles and chuckles as conservative lawmakers congratulate themselves on their great wisdom in slashing public budgets and cutting taxes.

Setting a ridiculously low bar

The only problem with this fun little bit of analysis, of course, is that it is based on a ridiculously low and dishonest standard; keeping the schools “open” with 35 or 40 kids in each classroom is not what North Carolina needs to do to advance and thrive in the 21st Century. Merely having functioning structures and keeping them “running” most of the time is no great achievement – at least not for one of the largest states in the most prosperous nation on earth.

Heck, the schools are “open” in most Third World countries. Mississippi has a university system. China has an environmental protection agency of sorts.

Perhaps even more to the point, basing one’s assessment of our state’s public systems and structures (and the collective future that beckons) based on whether or not things are “still running” is also an exercise in remarkably simplistic shortsightedness. This is, of course, because the impact of investments (and disinvestments) on public systems and structures is almost always gradual and cumulative.

It’s true: budget cuts of recent years haven’t led to the widespread and immediate demise of public education; after all, we have many smart and dedicated education officials who have figured out creative ways to keep things running – often with the imaginative use of duct tape and baling wire – but running.

But look a little closer and you can see the cracks forming and spreading rapidly. In field after field, the examples abound – whether it’s our increasingly crowded and poorly maintained schools and universities, our overwhelmed courts and prisons, our suffering natural environment, or our frequently threadbare public infrastructure.

In each of these areas and many others, our public structures and systems are no longer treated – as they once were – as subjects of community pride or showpieces that we want to spotlight for the rest of the nation and the world. Instead, they’ve become mere items on a ledger – gray bureaucracies and assembly lines consigned to a subsistence (or even starvation) diet.

The source of the problem

At the heart of this problem is the state’s chronic and worsening tax structure – a problem sure to be greatly exacerbated as a result of the “deal” unveiled by Gov. McCrory and legislative leaders yesterday afternoon. By all indications, the new plan will, contrary to the Governor’s longstanding (and now broken) promise of being “revenue neutral,” bring in hundreds of millions of dollars less into state coffers in coming years. This is during a period in which public revenues (as a percentage of total state income) have already fallen to levels last experienced in the early 1970’s. Add to this fact the cost of public health care in recent decades – which despite rising much more slowly than the cost of private health care continues to eat up more and more of public budgets – and one can readily see that the state is investing less and less in numerous core public services every year.

As Alexandra Sirota of the N. C. Budget and Tax Center noted last night after the new tax deal was announced:

“This is a bad deal for North Carolinians. What the Governor and legislature agreed on won’t support job creation and it will drain resources needed to bolster our economy.

It puts at risk the ability to educate our children, care for our elders, keep our communities safe and support businesses, while failing to fix the problems with the state’s tax code. And, it gets rid of policies that work such as the Earned Income Tax Credit.

This is not a historic day for North Carolina; tax reform hasn’t been achieved.  Instead, we’ve been handed a plan that will tarnish our state’s reputation as a leader in the South, a place where people want to live and businesses want to grow.

It is very likely that as a result of this failure to pursue real, comprehensive tax reform, state sales taxes and local property taxes will go up in the future.   That’s what happened in every other Southern state that has personal and corporate income taxes that can’t keep up with growing public needs.

Our state cannot be competitive nationally or internationally with this reckless approach. It undermines the education of our workforce and support for research and innovation.  The prospects of an ongoing race to the bottom for North Carolina now are all too real.”

A sadly ironic twist

The sad irony in all of this, of course, is that the policies in question have, for the most part, been inflicted upon the state by people who identify themselves as “conservative” – a label that was once associated with concepts like hard work, discipline and self-sacrifice. Indeed, Gov. McCrory’s supposed political hero, former President and General Dwight Eisenhower, was one of the great exemplars of this brand of conservatism.

Eisenhower was all about combating waste in government; after all, it was he who warned about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. But Eisenhower also knew that no nation could be great or promote widespread well-being if it confined its hard work, discipline and self-sacrifice to the realm of commerce and personal advancement. He recognized the direct application of those concepts was necessary in the public sector and on a societal level too.

Unfortunately, today’s “conservatives” look at the world through a different and distorted lens. To them, all societal well-being flows naturally and almost magically from the success of “the free market.”  Thus while the intentional application of hard work, discipline and self-sacrifice are appropriate for private actors working to advance themselves, on a collective or societal level anything more than the bare minimum effort amounts to a kind of “theft” perpetrated by “statists.” To aspire to construct great public institutions – as Eisenhower did with the interstate highway system – is an anathema to these people.

Generally speaking, keeping things “open and running” is enough.

And so it is that North Carolina finds itself in its present sad fix of being a state with all the tools and resources it needs, both physical and human, to accomplish great things, but lacking the political will to make it happen. For the foreseeable future, it appears we will rely upon the illusory magic of the invisible hand to solve our collective problems while our leaders, like frogs in a gradually warming pot on a stove top, remain oblivious to the mess they are making.

- See more at: http://www.ncpolicywatch.com/2013/07/16/oblivious-to-north-carolinas-gradual-demise/#sthash.MPt3sEye.dpuf