Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

If The Seattle Times editorial board were in charge, they'd be incapable of governing

As expected, The Seattle Times has come out against the high-earners income tax initiative spearheaded by William Gates, Sr.

In an editorial released Friday and published in today's paper, the Times stupidly assails Initiative 1077 as a "high-risk gamble" which would prevent job creation. The Times goes on to make a number of patently ridiculous claims, like:
Washington is already a high-cost state. The tax employers pay for unemployment benefits is higher than in most other states. So is the tax they pay for injuries at work. So are the costs of environmental protection. But Washington compensates by having no personal income tax. We are one of the few states that can say, "We levy no tax on success."
So regressivity's a good thing?

This is misleading argument which doesn't consider the big picture. According to an analysis by the Department of Revenue, Washington State ranks thirty fifth when compared to the level of taxes levied by every other state. Thirty fifth.

That means most other states are investing more in their common wealths than we are. We're in the bottom half. State expenditures as a percent of personal income haven't risen in decades. We're barely keeping pace. Is it any wonder we're struggling to figure out how to pay for our most vital public services?

The premise of the Times' argument is the conservative notion that wealth equals success, and success should not be punished. This notion assumes that all a poor person needs to become successful is discipline. A sufficiently disciplined person can pull him or herself up by their own bootstraps and use the "free" market to become prosperous... no matter impoverished he or she might be.

As George Lakoff has explained, this right wing economic freedom story is a myth. There are no self-made men or women in America. Everyone who starts or runs a business takes advantage of the vast infrastructure paid for by taxpayers: the interstate highway system, the postal service, the Internet, or the judiciary, where nine-tenths of cases involve corporate law, to name a few examples.

Consequently, those who use the common wealth to become personally wealthy owe their success to their fellow taxpayers. It is their patriotic duty to help sustain the common wealth by paying their fair share in dues.

Considering how much Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen hates the state estate tax, it's funny that it goes unmentioned in this editorial. That's a voter-sanctioned "tax on success", and its existence has not prevented businesses from setting up shop here. Nor has its existence stopped Forbes Magazine from repeatedly naming Washington one of the best states to do business in recent years.

Rather than deconstructing the Times' editorial point-by-point, though, I want to consider a more important question: How can Frank Blethen and Company reconcile their opposition to a strong common wealth and a progressive tax system with their opposition to the decay and destruction of public services? Because that's the alternative. As I and other NPI staff have written on so many occasions, there is no free lunch. If we want public services, then we must pay for them.

The Times wants to have it both ways. From their offices in Fairview, they have the luxury of being able to condemn Washington's elected leaders for strengthening our common wealth with new revenue one day and alternately decry the sorry state of our underfunded services another day. It's like the Voice of the Blethens is continuously morphing from Jekyll to Hyde and back again.

I excerpted Hyde earlier in this post. Let's hear from Jekyll. In 2004, in an unsigned editorial on the gubernatorial race, The Times opined:
Students deserve a stable source of funding not perennially subject to economic turn and political whim.

There are 100,000 more students in the state's K-12 system than a decade ago. A growing number are learning English and about one-third of them are poor. Too many are not succeeding.

Providing a solid education for every student is the next governor's paramount duty.
Well, that's the whole point of Initiative 1077: to provide a stable source of funding not perennially subject to economic turn and political whim.

The high-earners income tax proposed by the initiative would generate a billion dollars for public schools and healthcare coverage, after offsetting tax cuts for small businesses. The Voice of the Blethens notes that the initiative would generate a billion dollars, but never acknowledges that the money is specifically dedicated to the two aforementioned priorities.

That fact is immaterial; it doesn't fit in the Times' narrative du jour.

To a sensible person, here is the Times' position on education: We want to fully fund public schools, but we don't really want to fully fund public schools.

Yeah, that's consistent.

The constant, arrogant editorializing we find in the Times makes me wonder would happen if the company's executives were put in charge of the state. How would they govern? What budget would they write, what cuts would they make?

I believe that if the Seattle Times editorial board were put in charge — or in other words, were given the responsibilities that the offices of governor, representative, and senator entail — they'd be incapable of governing.

I would love to put them to the test, not as the state's actual leaders, but as the elected officials of Evergreen, a simulated version of Washington.

Nearly six years ago, I participated in a government simulation exercise with the same name in Ellensburg, as part of Boys' State, a program organized by the American Legion. We elected a governor, House of Representatives, Senate, Supreme Court, Attorney General, Lands Commissioner, Secretary of State, Auditor, Treasurer, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Lieutenant Governor.

The exercise was great fun, but it was also an eye-opener. I think everyone who attended came away with a better appreciation for how difficult governing is.

If could devise my own simulation of Evergreen, populated by employees of The Seattle Times Company, it would look something like this:
Executive Officers
Governor: Frank Blethen (Hyde Party)
Lieutenant Governor: Robert C. Blethen
Secretary of State: William K. Blethen
(Attorney General could be the Times' general counsel or top lawyer, Treasurer its chief accountant, Public Lands Commissioner its real estate manager, etc.)

Unicameral Legislature
Hyde Party: Speaker Ryan Blethen, Majority Leader Carolyn Kelly, Majority Whip Kate Riley, Bruce Ramsey, Joni Balter, Lynne Varner
Jekyll Party: Minority Leader Lance Dickie, Minority Whip Danny Westneat, Jon Talton, Jerry Large
To help populate the Legislature's loyal opposition, I threw in a few Times columnists who frequently share their own, more enlightened political views in the paper's Metro/Local and Business sections.

In the simulation, Governor Blethen would be faced with a budget crisis, much like Chris Gregoire was in real life at the end of last year. He would have to decide whether to ask the Legislature to cut essential public services like the Basic Health Plan or "buy back" those services with new revenue.

What would he do?

My suspicion is that Governor Blethen would not be able to stomach either of these options. He'd be paralyzed, especially after learning from his budget director that privatizing liquor stores, closing Evergreen's government printing office, and insisting on additional efficiencies in technology would not make a dent in the deficit threatening his state's fiscal health.

Maybe he'd propose selling off state parks and public lands. But he'd have to deal with the opposition of Minority Leader Lance Dickie, who in anticipation of such a move, would doubtless have already found couple members of the Hyde Party to join the Jekylls in wholeheartedly rejecting the idea.

Or maybe he would ask the Supreme Court to dissolve the Joint Operating Agreement between the State of Evergreen and the United States of Sims, so that Evergreen could escape many of its federally mandated obligations.

One thing's for sure: He would discover that governing is much harder and not at all like running a business. Since we know he's bad at the latter, there is no reason to think he'd be any good at the former. Even in a simulation.

All the same... I think I'd pay just to see him try.


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