It’s a big week for taxes here in California: property taxes are due the 10th and income taxes are due the 15th. For those of us who are self-employed, the latter means not only settling the bill on 2012 taxes, but making our first-quarter payment on our 2013 taxes. I hope whoever scheduled this triple-whammy dies a slow, painful death.
That said, I don’t mind paying taxes. Having an income to be taxed beats the alternative. Though I started out my adult life as a Republican, I have come to believe that those who have benefitted from being able to live and work and flourish financially in America should share some of those proceeds with those less fortunate. The former shouldn’t have to give all of it, and the latter shouldn’t get it forever, but there has to be a middle ground.
The middle ground is just where I find myself. There are people on my right who think government is the problem. There are people on my left who think government is the solution. As I wrote a couple of years ago, the answer is neither big government nor small government, but rather effective government.
And that’s what I fear is missing today. One of the great things about the profit motive under which capitalism functions: when a process doesn’t work, there’s motivation to change it. In government, when something doesn’t work, there may be energy to change it, but there is an equal or greater amount of opposing inertia to stop the effort.
Let me cite just two examples, one national and one local. The U.S. post office is in trouble. Electronic mail and online banking have almost made it an anachronism, like buggy whips at the dawn of horseless carriages or men’s undershirts at the debut of It Happened One Night. I’ve made my own suggestion for fixing the postal service: deliver first class mail daily, junk mail weekly, but the government was more tentative: it suggested cutting Saturday delivery to save $2 billion dollars. Great!
What does the General Accounting Office do in response? According to a March 2013 article in the New York Times, the GAO determined that the post office did not have the authority to make the change without Congressional approval, based on wording in the most recent budget appropriations bill. When one government agency (even an oversight agency) throws a monkeywrench into another agency’s attempts to save money, this is not effective government.
Closer to home, the state of California has an extensive community college system. In the less than 50 miles between San Jose and San Francisco, there are at least a half dozen junior colleges. They provide an excellent, low-cost education for those who are still searching for their passion and cannot afford tuition at the state’s two other higher-education institutions, Cal State University and the University of California. (Don’t ask me why we have three different educational systems; that’s for another column.)
The problem is of these 72 junior colleges, many of them exist in districts that govern only one or two colleges. That means, according to a March 2013 article in the San Francisco Chronicle written by California Watch reporters, “three [of the] districts had three chief business officers, five directors of campus facilities, three athletic directors and three public relations chiefs in 2011.”
If any government system called out for consolidation at the administrative level, this is one. But don’t hold your breath. The article continued, “Even before a merger could be approved, a litany of other financial, legal and political hurdles would stand in the way. Several groups must sign off on the deal, including the community college system’s Board of Governors, a committee of K-12 school officials in every affected county and the merging districts’ boards of trustees, which would be voting on whether to eliminate their own positions.”
I have never heard of public sector officials voting to eliminate their own jobs. Even when it becomes patently clear that the system must change, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the system has inserted safeguards to prevent that change. I’m reminded of the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey killing the astronauts to protect itself.
So as I prepare to write any number of checks this week to pay taxes for last year, this year, and the ground I live upon, I do so with a grisly mix of gratitude and grumpiness, proud of the good things I support and frustrated by the idiocy I witness.