We Can Measure Out Our Budgets With Coffee Spoons

by AnotherClioBeliever

Describing Napoleon’s Grand Army, French general and historian Philippe-Paul, comte de Ségur, wept that as it slunk across the Russian steppe toward the Dnieper “Only a train of specters covered with rags, Imagefemale pelisses, pieces of carpet or dirty cloaks — half burnt and riddled by fire — and with nothing on their feet but rags of all sorts, their consternation was extreme.” The French Empire had crafted an edifice of impossible size and complexity. The hundreds of thousands of men who eventually crossed into Russia were only a fraction of its true size. Yet like Haman, they and Napoleon eventually succumbed to that altogether human weakness of hubris. They never saw the seeds of their defeat until it was entirely too late. 

With Russian armies converging on all sides, and the brave rearguard of Ney all but exhausted, it looked like Napoleon himself would die in the cold Russian winter. Not all was lost, however. In a fantastically risky and arduous operation to save what was left of Napoleon’s Grand Army 400 ‘pontonniers,’ or engineers, fabricated in a night a series of magnificent bridges over the Dnieper. Only forty, out of 400, engineers survived. Most died from exposure and countless, working in fifteen-minute shifts, lost their footing in the frigid waters. They were swept away and drowned. But this historical scene isn’t the point of this post. It does, however, come back later.  

The New York Times provided me with the gem that spawned this post. From their article  

“Counties with already tight budgets are scrambling to house the influx of newcomers in facilities that were never designed to accommodate inmates serving long sentences, like a man who began serving 15 years for fraud recently in the Fresno jail.”

It caught my attention. The article continued.

“Ordered by the United States Supreme Court to reduce severe overcrowding in its prisons, California began redirecting low-level offenders to local jails last October in a shift called realignment. Its prison population, the nation’s largest, has since fallen by more than 16 percent to 120,000 from 144,000; it must be reduced to 110,000 by next June.”

As a Californian I can only shake my head at the sad state of affairs that I find myself in. Via Media, as it usually does, captures my sentiments admirably. 

“California is in a hole but can’t seem to stop its compulsive digging. Schools, universities, prisons, pensions, cities and towns: the state has lost the ability to manage even the most basic elements of communal living. But foie gras is now illegal there, grandiose plans for white elephant fast trains built with borrowed money waft through the air, and the state continues to boost the self esteem of affluent and cause-oriented gentry liberals by scattering scarce resources to the four winds, hunting unicorns when the cupboard is bare.”

If I liked foie gras at all, I’d now have to import it a few miles from Mexico. Convicted felons, however, are no cost to me! How lucky are we to have such enlightened governance. The article and commentary from Via Media reminded me of a sermon delivered by Henry Ward Beecher on ‘The Tendencies of American Progress.’ At times it can be a churlish attack on the poor for not being more wealthy. Beecher, before the attacks on human dignity by the ‘bigness’ of 20th Century, simply didn’t know any better. He does, however, make some excellent points. The most compelling aspect about the essay (if, dear reader, you find the time to read it) is how people, on both sides of the aisle, unconsciously quote him or attach his quotes to more contemporary (i.e. more politically expedient) talking heads. 

He readily admits that “wealth is more dangerous than other forms simply because it is a more various power, and has certain facilities for adaptation and use which belongs to almost no other power.” But, “…it is impossible to civilize a community without riches. I boldly affirm that no nation ever yet rose from a barbarous state except through the mediation of wealth earned.” I’m certain he never expected his words to be proven quite so literally. California has taken a true crash course in how easily we can revert to simple barbarism, a word we do not hear enough of, when the wealth runs out. 

Most importantly, I think this issue raises a greater point about the importance of the next election. If you believe half of what is written by the orthodox clerics of the cable talkshow junket this election matters. It matters a lot. I believe about a half less than that. I think it is entirely trivial and has no importance whatsoever. Regardless of who wins the fiduciary responsibilities of the last decade aren’t going to disappear. Instead they are going to dictate policy. Whether or not your local congressional representative has a ‘D,’ ‘R,’ or ‘I,’ in front of their name they will have to accept the landscape of America’s distressingly bare coffers. John Milton once spoke of good intentions paving the way to Hell. I think we was off, but not by much. You can’t pave anything, much less a road to Hell, with good intentions. You need money. 

The Government Accountability Office recommends that states should fund, if only theoretically, 80% of their current pensions. States can fudge the numbers, and declare that they will undoubtedly receive an 8% return on their pensions’ investments (which California has been doing for the last ‘forever’). A ludicrous rate of return by anyone’s estimation. It is not hard to imagine state accountants, as they write the words “8% return,” giving a little wink to their compatriots as if to say “You know what I mean.” Yet there is a level of deception that even state governments, when they promise their constituents a enjoyable retirement, don’t stoop to. Nevertheless, according to a recent report from the Pew Center on the States, only one state was fully funded in 2010, the most recent year examined, and 34 were funded at below 80%, up from 22 in 2008. Between 2009 and 2011, 43 states made some effort to change by increasing employee contributions or cutting benefits. About 17 states increased employee-contribution requirements last year. Sixteen states increased age and service requirements and 11 states revised their COLAs. 

Other reports have echoed these findings but with the added caveat that the financial outlook is not going to get better anytime soon.

In most cases this has meant a departure, thankfully, from orthodoxy. Both parties are embracing the same solutions, making it inconsequential whether or not they happen to be ‘Red’ or ‘Blue.’ In California, where the state’s park agency was about to close dozens of parks to conserve money, a new bill was crafted and signed into law. AB 42 essentially privatized the administration of California’s environmental capital.

The most ‘liberal’ state legislatures and governors have made the biggest cuts. Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts, increased the retirement age by five years, to 60. Why anyone thinks that your working years are over at 55 is a question better unasked and unanswered. Dannel Malloy restructured Connecticut’s plan, helping to save the state nearly $6 billion over the next two decades. Even Jerry Brown has been forced to make meager cuts to California’s educational funding Interestingly, he wasn’t pilloried by the state’s media for altering the blue social model as Schwarzenegger did. Of course, Republicans are still feeling the heat like Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett who recently eliminated the safety nets’ safety net (i.e. the state’s ‘General Assistance Program’). 

What is happening to those states who refuse to toe the new financial line? Like Napoleon’s engineers they’re going to be swept away to drown in a sea of red ink. They certainly have the best intentions, and perhaps their sacrifice will enable the Grand Army of the blue social model a few more years of fighting. But it’s clear that the eventual defeat for what I would call the progressive left model is inevitable regardless of who wins the next the election. All it will do is change the media coverage. If Obama wins, his cuts will be considered ‘hard but fair’ by the NYTs. ‘Death cuts’ by Fox News. If Romney wins it’ll be the exact same but in reverse. 

As a final passing point, dear reader, here is a link to a policy outline by Third Way that makes the point that if we are to continue our national prosperity we must shift from the ‘Great Society’ to the ‘New Frontier.’ Never say you didn’t get anything from me.