Monday, August 8, 2011

Another kind of disclosure

By Bill Kraus

One of Lee Dreyfus’s favorite quotes was, “Never underestimate peoples’ intelligence or overestimate their information.”

This is an aphorism that is currently seriously in play. Thanks to widespread dysfunction in Washington everyone now knows that the feds are like a teenager with a cellphone and no money.

Several years ago, the people began to turn their backs on the credit card life. The shift from credit cards to debit cards was pretty dramatic, except in Washington. A lot of people wonder why they get it and their leaders don’t.

The public’s possible over-reaction to public debt spawned a lot of things including giving the momentary illusion that the tea party movement had more support than it does and that the voters like people who take a hard line and won’t budge. The second take on macho politics is still underway, but doesn’t appear to be as one dimensional.

The desirable side effect of all this bickering disguised as turmoil is there is a welcome public attention to and knowledge about something more important than the social issues which once threatened to become the end-all be-all of politics.

Let’s not waste this. Let’s finish the fiscal term sheet. Let’s talk in great detail about the realities of what governments are spending all that money they get in revenues and, where it’s possible, all that money they are borrowing to meet needs that are outpacing their revenues.

This should be logical and easy. It is neither. The flow of spending information in a form that is both comprehensive and comprehensible is retarded by something called “the need to know phenomenon.”

People who are insiders often susceptible to the dark side of this phenomenon: secrecy. The more they know the more power they have. They understandably decide that those without this information do not “need to know” as much as they do, because this would dilute their power.

Government reporting with rare exceptions is generalized and incomplete as a result.

We all know, for example, that the administration of justice and the dispensing of punishment has become a very large item in the public budget. What we don’t know is who gets how big a piece of this pie. The law enforcement piece is not inconsiderable (how many citizens of the well informed city of Madison know that one half of the city budget goes for police and fire protection?). The prosecutors and judges and courts do not come free. And, worst of all, is the money being spent to incarcerate all those ruffians who threaten the peace loving majority.

Public money that flows to the medical establishment is also reported as a lump sum, an increasingly substantial one as the Wisconsin Taxpayers’ Alliance recently pointed out. We need to know more about who is getting what part of those public dollars too.

Even education spending is not reported in much detail. It is, perhaps, now more generally known that the K12 schools are getting more and more and the post high schools less and less. Beyond that we are not given the dirty details on who gets what to fundamentally make sure the next generations can take over when their time at the helm comes.

At one time in my life, I owned property in another state. My property tax bill was as long and detailed as my grocery bill when I’m stocking up for a Thanksgiving dinner for my large and nourishment needy extended family. If I wanted to know, my property tax bill told me how much I was paying for plowing, garbage collection, the parks, police protection, fire protection, and a lot more including compensating the representatives and administrators who were running the place.

This flow of information broadens the discussion to include the outgo side.

It is irresponsible to deal with taxes as something free standing which can or should be raised or reduced independent of deciding what the money is for.

We have an opportunity because of the difficult times and the difficult people we have chosen as leaders and the difficult jobs we have given them, to quit generalizing and to get specific about the two main jobs we elect politicians to do

1. Decide what role the government should play in society.
2. Decide how to pay the government for doing what we want it to do.

In great detail.
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