Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“Governments never learn. Only people learn.”     Milton Friedman

February 23, 2010

The Lean Years?

by Brad Warbiany

It seems that a town in Northern California, Tracy, is having some budget problems. So what do they suggest? Charge for 911* calls! And it has aroused the ire of Thomas Friedman:

A small news item from Tracy, Calif., caught my eye last week. Local station CBS 13 reported: “Tracy residents will now have to pay every time they call 911 for a medical emergency. But there are a couple of options. Residents can pay a $48 voluntary fee for the year, which allows them to call 911 as many times as necessary. Or there’s the option of not signing up for the annual fee. Instead they will be charged $300 if they make a call for help.”

Welcome to the lean years.

Indeed, to lead now is to trim, to fire or to downsize services, programs or personnel. We’ve gone from the age of government handouts to the age of citizen givebacks, from the age of companions fly free to the age of paying for each bag.

Did I hear that right? Do we have a return to the Clintonian pronouncement that “The era of big government is over”, where Thomas Friedman has just suggested that we’ve seen the end of the “age of government handouts”? I suppose we’ll see a quick retraction from $3.8T federal budgets down to less exospheric levels.

Wait, let’s step back a bit. I’ve heard nobody else suggest that we’re going to see major cuts in budgets. So what exactly is the issue here? Why would a local government cut funding for something that is so highly visible, so near and dear to city residents’ hearts, and such a vital service? Particularly when I’m sure that the revenue raised by this move will not be exactly world-changing (I’m hearing numbers of between $400K and $800K, when the city is facing a $9M shortfall).

I was struck by something I’ve read over and over at Coyote’s place:

The second thing that governments do is cut their MOST important, MOST valuable operations. In Seattle, it was always fire and ambulance services that would be cut. Because the whole game was to find the cuts that would most upset the public to try to avoid the necessity of having to make cuts at all. Its an incredibly disingenuous process. Any staffer of a private company that made cost savings prioritization decisions like government officials would be fired in about 2 minutes.

It becomes immediately clear that the city of Tracy isn’t doing this to raise revenue — they’re doing this to piss off residents. An easier way to cut the budget would be to scour the books for non-essential services, or bloated departments, or redundancies and inefficiencies in their system. I would find it hard to believe that there’s no padding in the city government. I’ve worked in the corporate world, and I know that during times of heavy growth and good days for the balance sheet, departments sometimes grow fat and happy. But something happens differently in the corporate world when the balance sheets start bleeding red — the departments shrink.

Tracy does not want to cut their budget, and they don’t want to make hard choices. If they really wanted to raise $400-800K, I’ll bet they could find all sorts of hidden fees, taxes, regulatory compliance nightmares, etc to put together that money. But they want to bluff the residents into the false choice of paying more in taxes or seeing vital services taken away. They want local residents to make the tough choices — or maybe just scream to Sacramento or Washington for relief — so they can remain fat and happy.

Thomas Friedman suggests the lean years are upon us. Somehow I have a feeling that my tax bill and our federal debt won’t reflect this.

* Note — the charges don’t apply to every 911 call, they are targeted at calls where medical response is necessary but provided by city personnel rather than an EMT. This does not change the fundamental analysis of the situation, but I want to be clear lest someone suggest I’m not providing a clear picture.

Also Blogging: Bruce at QandO. He went a different route with his response, so I had no need to quote him, but his take is valuable as well, so I suggest you head over and give it a read. And of course there’s Russ Roberts at Cafe Hayek, who is much closer to my line of argument.


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