Election message: We may be heading way back

How should we make the hard choice between eliminating colleges or prisons? Perhaps through a referendum? Alas, even then we won't be done cutting, unless we really reach back farther in history for inspirations.

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Washington state ballot (2010).

How should we make the hard choice between eliminating colleges or prisons? Perhaps through a referendum? Alas, even then we won't be done cutting, unless we really reach back farther in history for inspirations.

Following the election, a friend of mine was quick to say that the voters' rejection of all things taxing was a signal to state government that it just needs to tighten its belt.

But, of course, he followed that up by saying that higher education probably shouldn't be cut, while complaining that his children's K-12 schools were too focused on passing standardized tests (which, of course, determines whether they get their share of precious federal dollars from No Rich White Child Left Behind).

This opinion is typical of many people in the state (if not the nation): Government is wasteful at all levels, and needs to live within its means. But it must continue to provide the services that people say they want, apparently for free.

In the half-dozen candidate debates I moderated this fall, I never heard a Republican candidate vary from that standard line: Cut waste, and we'll protect spending on schools.

Of course the fact that half the state budget is schools, and constitutionally protected, never seemed to enter the discussion.

And nobody ever seems to be able to identify just what and where the waste is. The available evidence — Social Security and Medicare have far lower expense ratios than their private sector counterparts, for example — suggests that government, at all levels, is actually fairly efficient.

The only reasonable conclusion, therefore, is that, by definition, government spending is waste and, except for K-12 spending, needs to go away.

If we look just at Washington state, the other half of state spending includes higher ed, health care, prisons (a sadly growing category), and a bunch of relatively tiny things ranging from general government to parks and natural resources.

Apparently, that's all waste. And privatizing these services won't change that fact. Clearly, what we need to do is cut. And then cut some more.

In cutting $5 billion from the state budget last year, the Democrats did what they could to keep programs going and avoid real pain. They shouldn't do that again. Now is the exactly the time for real pain.

Normally, cutting programs such as health care and welfare threaten billions in federal matching funds, which would make the budget problem even worse.

But these are tough times. We've all got to learn to live within our means.

We need drastic action, before the state, if not the nation, devolves into a godless commie socialistic cesspool of lost values known as Obamaland.

We need to start by cutting whole programs, and ones that people will notice.

First, close the state parks. All of them. Lock the doors and close the gates. And levy a trespassing fine of anyone caught in a closed park of at least $100, payable immediately.

You like the parks? Too bad. We need to tighten our belts, and clearly, recreation is a wasteful luxury in tight times like these.

Unfortunately, that will only save $46 million from the state general fund. That would barely cover the executive suite at Boeing, let alone plug a $4 billion budget hole. So let's move on.

The Washington state Department of Agriculture does a lot of good work helping the state's farmers to do what they do better. But why are we effectively subsidizing all these private businesses? Times are tough; everybody's got to pull their own weight. It's time to tighten our belts and plow the department under, saving another $141 million.

Higher education is certain to be cut, so we might as well go whole hog. Spokane has two community colleges, which seems wasteful. They cost around $30 million a year, so close one and save another $15 million.

We'll probably need to close some other schools: Columbia Basin or Big Bend (let the voters decide); Eastern Washington University (can't they drive to Pullman?); and UW-Tacoma, since the majority of people in Pierce County apparently couldn't afford to pay an extra dime for a six-pack of soda.

All together, these clearly necessary cuts in wasteful educational spending will save, at best, about $200 million a year. But these are tough times, and we've got to tighten our belts.

We should cut general government by half, preferably on the front lines. So it should take twice as long to get any permits, licenses, or anything else you need. And make everything cost twice as much. Together, this should save us about another $2 million.

Included in this, of course, is every commission that works to boost sales of Washington state products, from aerospace and asparagus to wine. These commissions do good work to promote our products and hence our jobs, but these are tough times, and we've all got to tighten our belts.

And really, the couple of million this might save really will be worth it in the long run. As Dino Rossi has made so clear in his latest brilliant campaign, excessive government spending has been holding back the economy and decreasing jobs.

So far, we haven't reached half a billion. This may call for a referendum: What should we cut? Colleges or prisons?

Even with the sorely needed reductions we've already discussed, we'd still be spending about $3 billion on higher ed, plus another $1.8 billion on prisons.

Cutting both could give us a budget surplus, so we might not need to go that far. But I'll bet we can squeeze another billion out of the prison system, simply by letting go any prisoner who hasn't actually killed someone. Probably a lot of those people deserve to be in jail, but remember: These are tough times, and we’ve all got to tighten our belts.

That leaves $2.5 billion to go. We could cut the higher ed budget by half simply by auctioning off the remaining colleges to the highest bidder. That would provide cash up front and end the pointless expenditure of subsidizing so many people's educations. Whichever colleges attract the highest bids would be the ones to go, giving us time to phase out the colleges and universities so inefficient that they were unattractive to private investors.

But why stop there? This is America, dammit! If some is good, more must be better.

The other big drivers in this unsustainable level of government spending are health care and welfare. So, clearly, they need to go. As Texas Gov. Rick Perry has pointed out in his recent book about the importance of states' rights, in Texas — with the nation's highest level of poverty, lowest rate of health insurance coverage, and lowest percentage of high school graduates — less government is better.

Poverty and illness are essentially choices people make. If people don't want to be poor and ill and old and helpless, they should do something about it.

Without spending on health care and welfare, we will indeed give up a lot of federal money, but as excessive government spending is wrecking the economy, that should only help.

Therefore, the Legislature needs to reintroduce serfdom. Without all that state support, a lot of people will be at a loss for what to do, while the state's farm sector will be without a lot of assistance. So, we need to apportion the surplus population to the farms, all across the state, where they will get some minimum room and board in exchange for working the farms.

Some of these extra people probably aren't fit for farm work, so they can be sent to the state's many non-farm businesses, to provide suitable services there.

Of course, lowering so many people's standards of living will probably increase crime, so we'll need some money to pay for that. The Legislature can address this by selling titles to the people who can afford them, since wealthier people clearly are better people, and so they deserve recognition.

And, if we're lucky, the Baron of Boeing, the Count of Costco, and the Maharajah of Microsoft will see fit to sponsor a variety of fairs, festivals, and public brawls to keep people distracted and happy while they ponder the poor decisions that led them to their degraded condition.

And as with so many of our ancestors, people who don't like this arrangement are free to emigrate to other states and countries to seek new opportunities. After all, whatever happens, we're still the land of the free.

Consider this a modest proposal, a starting point. With a little ingenuity, we can probably get rid of government all together. Roads and transportation infrastructure will continue to spring up and sustain themselves as if by magic, and without police or fire protection, no doubt crime and the odd house fire will become much less common.

It is a bright future we face, my fellow citizens, if only we are bold enough to seize it.


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About the Authors & Contributors

T.M. Sell

T.M. Sell is professor of political economy at Highline College.