Monday, January 28, 2008

In Budget Space, No One Can Hear You Scream

Arizona state budget stuff. My suggested headline was above, but apparently the editor isn’t an Alien fan. And it’s his split infinitive, not mine.

East Valley Tribune, Jan. 27, 2008

The idea that government spending should increase only based on inflation and population growth means that you believe government shouldn’t do anything that it didn’t do 5, 10, or 15 years ago. That’s not just quantity; it’s quality, too.

The 1990 census put Arizona’s population at 3.67 million; the 2000 census showed 5.13 million residents; and the Census Bureau estimates the current population at 6.34 million. That’s a lot of growth -- about 73 percent. Sounds like a lot of room, until you actually think about it.

Twenty years ago, before the 1986 tax referendum resulted in any actual pavement, metro Phoenix still had only 31 miles of urban freeways. So today we could only have the population-growth number more, which would be about 54 miles -- about a quarter of what’s been built and is still under construction with the county-wide sales tax.

But with freeways, it wouldn’t quite work that way; costs for land acquisition and construction, much less maintenance, increased greater than the rate of overall inflation. (We’ll be giving back much of that real estate appreciation over the next few years, but it’s too late to save any money on right-of-way purchased during the boom.) So while some Tribune op-ed columnists think we should be able to tool around town just fine on 73 percent more freeway miles, we’d actually have less miles -- and more congestion.

Don’t like traffic jams today? Imagine what they’d be like if these number-crunchers had gotten their way.

Same thing with health care. Maybe some people want to live in a state where you’re entitled to the exact medical care we had when we started letting numbers rule our lives. Any sort of improvement in care, or new treatment for disease? Forget it, because we’d have limited ourselves solely to making up inflation and population growth.

The population-and-inflation number would be a double whammy, however, because it ignores changes within the overall population. As the nation (and Arizona) ages, that increases demand for health care. But the formula doesn’t care about that; not only do you get only the treatments that existed years ago, but you only get the same amount of care that you needed five, ten, or fifteen years ago. Unless some resources get freed up because a lot of people older than you have died, but unfortunately for us Boomers, the generation ahead of ours seems to be living longer. That might be considered a good thing -- unless you’re one of these “limit spending!” types.

Has the incidence of autism among children increased tremendously, far more than population growth generally? Are there new treatments available that offer hope? Might we want to fund research to determine the causes and perhaps a cure? Sorry, but the population-and-inflation formula means we ration research, education, and treatment. If the number of autistic kids increases more than overall population growth -- which is has, big time -- those “extra” kids are out of luck.

If you’re going to limit government to population-and-inflation, that also means you can’t create new crimes, or lengthen sentences for existing ones, without decriminalizing others or releasing other prisoners earlier. Actually, that might make some sense; few government programs cost as much for as little proven benefit as the death penalty.

But unfortunately, the population-and-inflation types never start there, it’s too much fun to try to take away education and health care from those less fortunate than they.

What’s most puzzling about the current budget wrangling is that basically all of the “cut wasteful spending” types had a hand in the current budget (or an alternative that spent 99.9 percent as much). If that number included tons of things we easily could live without, then why didn’t these guys take care of it last year?

Instead, we’re getting the usual “across the board” cuts or appeals to some bogus population-and-inflation formula that would make somebody else responsible for the results of their ideology. It’s all theoretical and abstract, the political equivalent of planning the crime, then wearing gloves -- so your fingerprints never appear on the victims.

1 comment:

Jessica said...

Hey Sam-

Not sure if you would be interested in this, but since religion and politics is such a hot topic right now, and with the primaries moving into Arizona, I thought you may be interested in a film that just came out titled: "Article VI: Faith. Politics. America." The film was directed by Bryan Hall and Jack Donaldson. It is an intense discussion of the role of faith in politics. The title is taken from Article Six of the United States Constitution: "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

If you haven't seen the trailer I suggest you check it out:

(DVD's just went on sale as well.) Let me know what you think!