Not Deficit Reductionism, Misplaced Priorities

Like my colleague Mike the Mad Biologist, I'm horrified by a story out of Indiana in which parents of disabled children who are no longer receiving state aid due to the state budget crisis, were told that they could drop the kids off at homeless shelters if they were unable to care for them at home:

However, that's exactly what Becky Holladay of Battle Ground, Ind., said a bureau worker told her when she called to ask about the waiver she's seeking for her 22-year-old son, Cameron Dunn, who has epilepsy, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

"We are people and they are people," she told members of the General Assembly's Commission on Developmental Disabilities on Tuesday. "They have lives that are worth something."

The commission's chairwoman, Rep. Sheila Klinker, D-Lafayette, said she's heard similar stories from other witnesses who were told they could abandon their children.

Mike goes on to pass on several other stories of parents being told to either take their children out of subsidized facilities or leave them at a shelter. This is just one more horrifying episode in the saga of state budget crises being played out on the backs of the disabled, on poor children, on the most vulnerable people in the US - going back to 2008, we've seen the elimination of home health aides for the severely disabled in Arizona, cutting of child health care for poor kids, and on and on and on.

Where Mike and I disagree is on the root cause of this. He blames this on deficit reductionism, the unwillingness to borrow in order to secure our basic future. This is an argument made by a lot of people, and in some times and places, one I might make as well. But this isn't one of them - I would argue what this demonstrates are insanely misplaced priorities, not the reasonable disinclination to borrow.

The reality is that in order to believe that running deficits in a crisis is a good idea, you have to believe that what will follow is a period of growth that allows you to pay off those debts fairly painlessly. The problem is that every single period of economic growth the US has had in the last century has been accompanied by expanded energy consumption - we simply have no evidence that one can have economic expansion and energy conservation at the same time. The realities of both climate change and resource depletion, however, mean that we can't afford a period of energy expansionism - and there's some question considerable about whether we even have the resource base to produce one.

Framing the problem correctly is important here - even if we borrowed a ton more money, there's no real evidence that Americans would spent it on the poor and vulnerable - they are always our favorite targets, because the underlying assumptions of American society is that you have to "grow the economy" in order to enjoy luxuries like feeding the hungry and taking care of disabled kids. That is, of course, insane - we still have the money to be doing road work, but not to make sure that elderly people get medication that keeps them alive? We still have money to stimulate the economy by building runways for people who fly, but not money to keep disabled kids in group homes? We still have money to run a war in Afghanistan and a "not quite a war anymore" in Iraq, but we don't have enough money to pay for lunches for poor kids? We have state money to provide tax breaks to businesses that might consider maybe locating ten jobs in our state, but nothing to provide home health aides for parapalegics? Bullshit.

This isn't about deficit reductionism, it is about misplaced priorities - about fundamentally false notions about what government is for, what its highest aims should be, and most of all, what kind of people we are. The deficits question is a sideshow.


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I'm afraid I'll have to suggest a third possibility; not econ-astrological, nor priority processing based, but resource based.

"Compassion" is, I fear, a limited resource. It is interdependent with several others; but the bottom line is, for individual X, it is absolutely possible to hit the end of it.

One more grim reality up ahead; and the example here is painful proof we're already reaching the limits.

I saw it first, and most forcefully in China, a couple decades ago. Out in a remote town, as my host and I were standing in the street discussing plans; a young man about 18 years old or so walked past us. He was completely naked. Dirty, hair uncut - and quite vacant eyed.

My host was embarrassed. "There is no hospital here for the retarded; this county is poor..."

Someone was feeding him; he wasn't starving. And he was sleeping somewhere. But beyond that- the entire town was past its ability to respond. And in truth, by our standards, the entire community was desperately below our "poverty" measures.

If you think we're different; think again.

Agreed, Greenpa, but I don't think we're *there now* which is the critical point. Quite a few more people could be called upon for greater compassion before they get to complain about fatigue, IMHO.


Well, today's subject certainly falls close to home. (For Sharon's readers, I work at a residential treatment center for at-risk, teenage boys, most with various behavioral disorders along with learning disabilities, ADHD, etc.)

Massachusetts has two ballot questions tomorrow dealing with taxes. The first would cut out a sales tax added on alcohol sales on top of an existing alcohol excise tax. The second question would cut our state sales tax from 6.25% to 3%.

At my workplace, our public advocacy director has sent repeated emails out to our entire organization (almost 800 of us) imploring us to vote against cutting either tax, telling us that cutting taxes will devastate our organization and what we do. (We depend on state and town revenue for ~85% of our agency income.) The horror stories abound about what will happen if these tax cuts pass. But amazing as it sounds, I'm voting for the tax cuts. Here's why:

Both taxes to be cut are themselves fairly new taxes. The extension of the sales tax to alcohol, on top of the existing excise tax, only took place a couple of years ago. Ditto the raising of the sales tax from 5 to 6.25% and yet I ask, did we not take care of the at-risk and developmentally disabled kids five years ago? Ten years ago, before these new taxes?

What has happened in MA is that we have *amazing* mis-spending going on. We have some of the most lavish pensions and retirement deals for state employees (particularly upper state employees) the rest of us have ever seen. Retirement can come at 55. After just twenty years of service, people can retire with 80% or more of their work salary - for life. We give all manner of benefits to new resident arrivals, whether they be documented people or not, while we're cutting special education and aid for developmentally disabled. Ditto health care for an expanding underclass. There are so many other ways our government has come to spend money lavishly, I can't count them, but all in all our budget has grown greatly. We continue to rebuild our area beltway, Rt 128/I-95/I-93, adding another travel lane from Wellesley all the way to Randolph. We just opened another runway last year at Logan Airport.

Even in my business, we now bus many special ed students 20 or 30 miles each way to a school, at a cost of over $35K, per year, per student, for transportation alone. Our resident kids, often in the legal care of MA DCF, get over $1400 per year each for clothing. No non-DCF kid I know gets that kind of clothing money per year. As a result, my DCF students often sport 4 to 8 pairs of sneakers, barely worn, and throw them out when they simply get dirty!

There is SO much waste, from highways to even clothing for my students, all while we're going to cut programs and outright cut special schools such as mine, when politicians cannot even begin to make the sensible adjustments to spending and allocations that is really needed.

Sharon, you also make another good point when you say that everybody simply expects the economy to take back off. Hence we can borrow, or pass "temporary" tax increases for now, and fix things later when the economy improves. That's what people in government, and in my agency all too often think, and in an age of shrinking energy availability, it just isn't going to happen this time.

When I talk this way, especially in the liberal, progressive circles in which I work, I confuse people. They think I must be some kind of closet Archie Bunker or Sean Hannity, but it's their own misunderstandings and lack of knowledge that is at issue here. I WANT to help kids. I DON'T want social and financial support for my work to faulter. But I know that our state is broke and broken. We cannot keep increasing taxes while spending is misappropriated and outright wasted. In and out of our social service agency, we have to tighten our belts and make do with less. Maybe if we didn't let the staff control the air conditioning in our summer school, setting the whole building to 64 degrees while over-riding the night time shut off. Heck, maybe if we did *without* air conditioning, we could continue to do what is really important for our students. Maybe if we stopped expanding roads, made MA transit workers' pensions a bit less sweet like retiring at 65 to 68, and/or require more years of service, or kill the outrageous pension the head of the University of MA gets....something like a full, salaried pension for life after 10 or 15 piddling years of service.

I'm rambling here I know, and I'm just too upset to properly edit and organize this post offline before I POST it, but take away from this teacher/social worker this: the whole system is broken in our state government along with our own agency-contractor. People want to spend money on the wrong things, or crazily waste money on the right things. They think we can tax and tax and tax, because the economic pie will continue to grow ever larger. But it won't.

I continue to work as smart as I can, educating people along the way as I go. I will vote against the recent tax increases. Not because I pay lots of sales taxes. Indeed I pay very little sales tax on account of the fact that I buy so little stuff anyway. No, I'll vote against the taxes because it's one way that our society has to start making smarter use of what resources, financial and otherwise, that we have left.

I have no doubt it's all going to get very ugly.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 01 Nov 2010 #permalink

Agreed, Sharon. :-) The thing is, there seem to be many of "us" who THINK we are "there"; with no real concept of where "down" is. It may be moot to point out they aren't; when they believe and act otherwise.

I'm afraid it will take very hard lessons for the smug and self-satisfied among us to learn they are capable of more compassion. The stories from the "new poor" always (and I use that word carefully) include statements like "I thought food aid was for the lazy...". Before learning otherwise, our comfortable bourgeois, and others, simply don't see, or know, or feel.

And our "national dialogue" at the moment is powerfully focused on NOT listening to anyone who disagrees with you, at all. Why should we even try to work together? "They" are ... wrong... evil... stupid... venial... corrupt... pick your adjective; they're all reasons to sit back and give up. (There are, in fact, a few sincere "good" people, even inside The World Bank, that den of global ogres... who might deserve some support from outside...) :-)

It will be the helpless who suffer the most, and first. Of course. And they are.

I think I could add to my previous post that our advocacy director at work, while he sends us emails to vote to maintain or increase taxes, he never sends us emails asking us to vote or contact our representatives to advocate for less state pensions for UMASS presidents, less road building, less airport runway construction, etc. In general, we're always asked to spend more, rather than simply rearrange our existing spending.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 01 Nov 2010 #permalink

That is, of course, insane -

There you have it. Of course it's insane. To assimilate, conform, acculturate.. to an insane society is to be insane. We're all insane to the extent we accommodate insanity. Some of us, just a wee bit, have come to realize just how insane the cultural milieu we're immersed in actually is. But then, every nut thinks that they're the only sane one and that it's everyone else that's crazy.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 01 Nov 2010 #permalink

"we still have the money to be doing road work, but not to make sure that elderly people get medication that keeps them alive? We still have money to stimulate the economy by building runways for people who fly, but not money to keep disabled kids in group homes?"

I agree with your premise but these two examples are not ideal (like the war example is). Infrastructure upkeep, such as for roads and airfields, is tied not just to economic development but to things like making sure elderly people get medication that keeps them alive.

If we cannot transport things readily in times of need, we just as well should not have them. When organs or medical radioisotopes need to be distributed throughout the country or world, these things are a public necessity and their maintenance is vital to equality between rich and poor.


While you are taking issue with a quote from Sharon, because I also mentioned road and runway building, let me respond.

In the instances I cited, the state is making an existing roadway, already in decent shape, larger, expanding the highway from 3 to 4 lanes in each direction. There was already plenty of capacity for medical use to use your example. Ditto the added runway at Logan Airport in Boston. In both cases, the expansion was done to allow affluent people more ease of movement. Especially with the airport expansion, there was little need to add even more runway capacity at Logan, especially given the fact that world oil production has now plateaued and is beginning to drop.

You mention that these projects are important for economic development, but that's only true of energy-intensive, economic development for affluent people. Many poorer people in East Boston or Chelsea, (poorer communities in the very shadow of Logan Airport) have never even set foot on an airplane and probably never will. The many millions of dollars spent to open Runway 32 will never realize economic gains as air traffic continues to dwindle, never mind trickle down to most East Boston residents.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 01 Nov 2010 #permalink

I should add that Runway 14/32 is a short-length runway (5000 ft.) that is also too narrow (100 ft wide, vs 150 for the other runways) for airliner use. It was meant to be used mainly by *private* aircraft, corporate and individually owned.

It is a classic example, actually, of the misplaced spending priorities that Sharon (and I) are talking about.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 01 Nov 2010 #permalink

Stephen beat me to it, but also, I do think it is important to point out that we can probably figure out ways to rush organs to desperate waiting transplant patients without maintaining a system of private transport that is used 99.99% of the time for other, far more trivial uses. I think there's a deep lack of imagination in the idea that we need a network of everyone's private car, multi-trillion dollar road systems, etc... in order to make those rare essential transport actions occur - or that they justify their existence.


Organs aren't usually shipped very far because they don't last very long on ice. There's a transplant center in Denver, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, & Phoenix, for instance, and donor organs stay within those regions. It is possible for recipients to be on more than one list but it's up to them to be able to get to the city when an organ becomes available, and to get there pronto. The organ will go to the next person on the list if they tarry. My wife could receive a kidney transplant in Albuquerque but she needs a pancreas also and Albuquerque doesn't do pancreas transplants. Hence, she has had to move to Phoenix where the Mayo Clinic does pancreas transplants. Phoenix is too far away for her to be able to get there in time from here, should a pancreas become available. The pancreas is a delicate organ and often the surgeon doesn't know if a given allograft is viable until the recipient is prepped for surgery and he or she is holding the organ in his/her hands. So my point is that transportation infrastructure is more important for the transplant recipient to be able to travel rapidly to the city to receive the transplant, than it is for transporting harvested organs.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 01 Nov 2010 #permalink

Stephen B-

I hadn't read your post and honestly I wasn't talking about Boston or any other major urban area. Yes those may be wasteful spending on roads and airports, but I didn't get the implication from the original post that we were talking about roads and airports in the East Coast or West Coast Megalopolis.

I was just trying to point out that there are important uses of roads and airports which, I believe, are necessary for the fluid and rapid movement of important services and goods throughout the country (and the world).

There are inhabited places in this country where it would take many hours to reach if you were trying and these times are cut drastically by small airfields and well maintained roadways. Unfortunately these places often don't have economic factors driving the transportation infrastructure maintenance. That was my main point.

I was also not trying to justify the use as economic development, but to point out that they have use other than economic reasons.

Now Sharon still takes issue with my point, and I can understand her point of view. I don't know if I can see an alternative to a system of roads, but I agree the idea of personal transportation as it is now is unsustainable.

I very much agree with Stephen B. I've worked in state agencies, and saw the enormous waste of our tax dollars. It is insane and amazingly cruel to be cutting the budgets for the disabled and truly poor when there is so much tax money being wasted on excessively high state salaries and retirement programs, unnecessary projects, and more.

But those folks with the most money absolutely believe they deserve it all, and they simply don't believe that the lower income folks deserve any more than what little they have, if that. I have to listen to coworkers whose household income is well above $150,000 complain about having to pay a dentist bill. Meanwhile, after paying my health insurance premium and medical bills, I'm trying to survive on less than $800 a month! It never occurs to them that we are dealing with issues at totally different levels, and that maybe they shouldn't be complaining to ME about their minor financial problems.

I'm ranting, I know, but I work for millionaires who are the cheapest people on the planet! They deserve to buy a $10,000 mattress, but their employees don't deserve to earn enough money to afford to buy health insurance or set aside any money for retirement. I also vote to reduce taxes, because I've seen so much tax money wasted. But I would also vote, given the chance, to support the poor and disabled. I believe it is possible to do both, except for the fact that the rich people in power control all the money.

Stephten B.

Employers need to take responsibility for how far their work is from their workers. Employers need to engage in community planning, not the state build bigger freeways so longer commutes get longer. (Hey! They added another lane to the freeway! I get home 20 minutes sooner now! Let's move another 15 miles out!)

Assuring the average over-20 mile commute gets cut in half would save fuel, money, time, and not need to get commuter routes widened.

Brad, I think employers will stop relocating their facilities out in the hinterlands when they can no longer attract enough employees willing to make the costly commute. At any rate, we can stop subsidizing this relocation by drawing the line on continued road building and expansion.

To everyone else, rereading my earliest post today, I see I really ranted. I think I even out-ranted Sharon :) I also see pretty poor sentence structure, fragments, and run on sentences galore. 'Sorry about that folks.

I guess my point is this. Here in Massachusetts, we've had one party rule for nearly my whole life. (I'm 48.) In Massachusetts' case that party would be the Democrats. Now the Dems pretend to want to help the down and unfortunate, and to a point they do care. But in reality, all they really care about is their own situation far more than those they pretend to serve. They threaten to cut the meat of programs when the populace makes noise about restricting state taxes and revenue. I have no doubt that they WILL cut programs once the tax revenue drops. The other party meanwhile - the Republicans, all too many in that camp fail to understand just how some people arrived at being homeless, or how their drunk father deserted them after beating up mom one too many times, or how mom resorted to drugs as a way of coping. Oh, some Repubs understand this and to their credit they also understand that sometimes entitlement programs DO create excessive and extended dependency that is hard to break and that when we have this extended dependency multiplied by many thousands of people continued on, how it threatens to break the state budget.

What's the solution? The solution is that caring people have to FORCE accountability. Cut those excessive state salaries and pensions, especially at the top. Vote out the corrupt power or powers. DEMAND that thoughtful programs not be cut. Get involved. Watch government budgets and let politicians KNOW they are being watched. The era of declining resources is upon us and we cannot let corrupt government workers and/or inefficient and/or corrupt government contractors behave in a similarly poor, inept manner.

Government will rob us blind, along with the unfortunate in this post peak oil era of declining resources in order to protect the lavish lifestyle of those that inhabit government if we let it be so.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 01 Nov 2010 #permalink

"The great enemy of freedom is the alignment of political power with wealth. This alignment destroys the commonwealth--that is, the natural wealth of localities and the local economies of household, neighborhood, and community--and so destroys democracy, of which the commonwealth is the foundation and the practical means. This happens--it is happening--because the alignment of wealth and power permits economic value to overturn value of any other kind. The value of everything is reduced to its market price. A thing not marketable has no value."

--Wendell Berry