“You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone.” Joni Mitchell was prophetic when she sang those words back in 1970.
Back then, for example, if you drove across the Indiana Turnpike, you’d stop at the James Whitcomb Riley, Booth Tarkington, or Ernie Pyle rest stop. Plain, basic concrete buildings, but also racks of maps, clean restrooms, something to eat and some sense of the heritage of Indiana. All gone today: Indiana’s turnpike—under Governors Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence—has been turned over to an Australian investment consortium that pledged improvements at low cost. Now you can stop at gas station-style convenience stores with 47 kinds of potato chips and some beef jerky. Someone flips hamburgers at a tiny grill and there are five or six tables crowded together where you can sit if there’s room. Dirty, minimal restrooms. Although the old places had fallen into disrepair, today’s version is a reduction, a diminishment.
The late political philosopher Benjamin Barber reflects on the implications for all of us of the reduction of government’s role and the kind of privatization of public services represented by the Indiana Turnpike: “There is today a disastrous confusion between the moderate and mostly well-founded claim that flexibly regulated markets remain the most efficient instruments of economic productivity and wealth accumulation, and the zany, overblown claim that naked, wholly unregulated markets are the sole means by which we can produce and fairly distribute everything human beings care about, from durable goods to spiritual values, from capital investment to social justice, from profitability to sustainable environments, from private wealth to the essential commonweal. This second claim has moved profit-mongering privateers to insist that goods as diverse and obviously public as education, culture, penology, full employment, social welfare, and ecological equilibrium be handed over to the profit sector for arbitration and disposal. It has also persuaded them to see in privatization not merely a paring knife to trim the fat from overindulgent state bureaucracies but a cleaver with which democracy can be chopped into pieces and then pulverized.” (Jihad vs. McWorld, p. 239)
What is the appropriate role of government—the role the libertarians seek to erase? Here are political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson: “Why does it take a lot of government to get and keep prosperity?… Effective government makes prosperity possible. It can do so because government has unique capacities—to enforce compliance, to constrain or encourage action, to protect citizens from private predation—that allow it to overcome problems that markets can’t solve on their own… Economists use the term ‘market failure’ to describe many of these problems…. Many important goods in a society are ‘public goods’: They must be provided to everyone or no one… The second big case of failure—and it is really big—involves markets that produce large effects on people who are neither buyers nor sellers. Economists call these external effects, well, ‘externalities.’… When externalities are present, market prices will not reflect the true social costs (or benefits) associated with private transactions.” (American Amnesia, pp.73)
Today with 25 all-conservative, all-Republican statehouses—House, Senate and Governor, all-Republican—along with a Congress seriously considering the budgetary and health care proposals of the libertarian, Tea-Party, House Freedom Caucus—it is becoming clear what reducing government will mean and evident that the consequences will be far more serious than the lack of aesthetics, literary history, and comfort at the new convenience store, rest-stops on the Indiana Turnpike.
The Flint water crisis, which began in 2014—and nobody told Flint’s residents about until 2016—was America’s wake-up alarm. For a long time Michigan has been governing its poorest municipalities and school districts with austerity budget management instead of addressing the needs of the citizens. Michigan’s governor has the right to appoint a fiscal manager who can override elected officials and even abrogate union contracts; there are no checks and balances. In Flint, Michigan’s appointed emergency fiscal manager, Darnell Earley, approved a plan to save money by taking water out of the Flint River instead of buying already treated water from Detroit. Chemicals to prevent release of lead from old, corroded pipes were not added to the water when Flint began taking water from the river; the pipes corroded all over town; and the children in Flint tested positive for lead poisoning on an epidemic scale. Emergency fiscal managers were first authorized by state law in Michigan in 1988. After voters overturned the emergency manager law by referendum in the November 2012 election, the lame-duck, all-Republican legislature came back in the middle of the night with a tougher law that was referendum-proof. The 2012 law supposedly limits the tenure of austerity-budget emergency managers, but Governor Rick Snyder has found a way to extend austerity management long-term. Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan explains: “(T)he managers were given extreme unchecked authority… (T)hey were given the ability to come in, clean up the problems and get out. And so there was an 18-month time limit put on their terms. Except that this governor is exploiting what amounts to a loophole in that law… (T)hese emergency managers serve for 17 months and 29 days, and the day before their term expires, they resign. A new emergency manager is put in place, and the clock starts ticking all over again. And they just shuffle them from one place to another.” Hands-off, no-regulation-government let down the children of Flint.
Then just a month ago, on June 14, another alarm went off in Britain, which has also been experimenting since the Thatcher era with austerity along with libertarian thinking. NY Times reporters explain: “Residents of Grenfell Tower had complained for years that the 24-story public housing block invited catastrophe. It lacked fire alarms, sprinklers and a fire escape. It had only a single staircase. And there were concerns about a new aluminum facade that was supposed to improve the building—but was now whisking the flames skyward… The facade, installed last year at Grenfell Tower, in panels known as cladding and sold as Reynobond PE, consisted of two sheets of aluminum that sandwich a combustible core of polyethylene… (B)y 1998, regulators in the United States… began requiring real-world simulations to test any materials to be used in buildings taller than a firefighter’s two-story ladder… Business-friendly governments in Britain—first under Labor and then under the Conservatives—campaigned to pare back regulations. A 2005 law known as the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order ended a requirement for government inspectors to certify that buildings had met fire codes, and shifted instead to a system of self-policing. Governments adopted slogans calling for the elimination of at least one regulation for each new one that was imposed, and the authorities in charge of fire safety took this to heart.”
The third example, of course, is Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s experiment to prove that tax slashing will grow the state economy. It didn’t, and last month outraged constituents finally forced their elected representatives to raise taxes. But the damage can’t be overcome so easily. Here is Justin Miller in a fine analysis for The American Prospect: “What Brownback’s tax cuts have accomplished is to have created a crisis of catastrophic proportions for state residents. The tax cuts blew an immediate hole in the $6 billion state budget, as revenue levels fell an astounding $713 million from fiscal year 2013 to 2014…. Brownback has also allowed a long-standing public school shortage to metastasize into a full-blown constitutional crisis… More than half the state’s general fund is dedicated to funding K-12 public education… In 2006, Kansas settled a lawsuit with school districts and committed to significant increases in funding over a three-year period. The state did increase funding, but when the Great Recession hit, then-Governor Mark Parkinson, a Democrat, made deep cuts to the education budget. The cuts were supposed to be temporary, but upon taking office in 2011, Brownback opted for his tax cuts rather than restoring the schools’ funding. Between 2008 and 2013, state school funding fell by 16.5 percent when adjusted for inflation. In 2015, Brownback cut $28 million more from the state K-12 education budget. A month later, he signed legislation that scrapped the state’s long-held school financing formula, substituting a block-grant system that essentially locked in those cuts for the following two years… The failure to restore pre-recession funding has disproportionately impacted urban school districts like Kansas City’s and Wichita’s.”
In a recent short analysis for the Economic Policy Institute, Does Corporate America See a Future in the United States?, economist Gordon Lafer explains that the new fiscal austerity and removal of government regulation in the U.S. is the result of a lobbying assault that promotes intentional reduction of government as a check and balance on business: “President Trump’s budget proposal follows the playbook that corporate lobbyists have long pushed in state legislatures: tax cuts for companies and the rich, coupled with dramatic cuts to services that benefit everyone… In recent years, states and localities across the country have made drastic cuts to essential public services… Budget cuts were particularly devastating in the country’s school systems. In 2010, the national student-teacher ratio increased for the first time since the Great Depression; and seven years after the onset of the Great Recession, most states had still not restored per-pupil spending to pre-recession levels. Most striking about these cuts: the legislators who enacted them and the business lobbies that championed them treated them not as temporary tragedies to be repaired when revenues bounced back, but as long-desired permanent cuts to public services. Indeed, many legislatures locked in poorer tax bases by enacting new tax giveaways to corporations and the rich while slashing funding for schools, libraries, and health care. In the same year that Ohio ended full-day kindergarten, legislators phased out the state’s inheritance tax—which had only ever affected the wealthiest seven percent of families.”
Lafer continues: “This agenda was driven by the country’s premier corporate lobbies: chambers of commerce, manufacturers associations, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, and the Fortune 500 companies that have participated in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)… Given this reality, we take this corporate-backed push for disinvestment of America’s public sector as a big, loud early warning signal. ALEC’s agenda is not that of employers committed to their surrounding communities. It more resembles that of a company planning to cut and run. For the rest of us who seek good jobs and future opportunity for ourselves and our children, what’s good for GM is good for GM, period.”
For years and years, Betsy DeVos, the new Secretary of Education, has been directly implicated in this agenda in her home state of Michigan. She and her family founded, funded, and have worked actively with the Great Lakes Education Project, a libertarian lobbying outfit that has led the effort to block increased oversight of the out of control, for-profit charter school sector that has threatened the Detroit Public Schools. When, now that she is the U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos demands that school accountability be defined as a parent’s right to choose a different school if things are not going well, she is promoting her libertarian bias for lack of government regulation, lack of democratic oversight, and lack of public transparency. Her mantra is the expansion of vouchers to drive public tax dollars away from the public system that is required to serve all children and protect their rights.
Most of us take our local public schools—overseen and carefully regulated by government to protect the investment of tax dollars and the rights of our children—so much for granted that it is difficult for us to imagine that Betsy DeVos and her libertarian friends at ALEC, the Great Lakes Education Project and Americans for Prosperity can invest enough billions of lobbying dollars to destroy public education. But we ought to pay attention. “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone!”