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Slicing the Pie

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By Robert W. O'Donnell

Since the dawn of time those who govern have had to face two conflicting demands. On one hand, government is organized to deal with problems collectively that are difficult to deal with individually. On the other hand, there are claims for a greater share of whatever resources government can gather -- regardless of whether those claims advance the general good or contribute to the solution of a social problem.

Those who govern must balance these claims with the overriding need to achieve the general good.

As we look back on 2009, it is clear that in Pennsylvania the balance has not been well struck - the spoils system dominates. We prefer to think that this is because of a few "bad apples" or insufficiently rigorous rules for public behavior. But, neither zealous prosecution nor self-righteous reform will change this culture and restore the damaged and flawed institutional infrastructure of our democracy.

The heart of the matter is the contradiction between the result we want and the decisions we make.

My wife has observed that I have a very healthy diet subject to 365 exceptions. I want to have a healthy result, but each day I tend to make decisions that have an opposite effect. Unless prodded by some other larger issues - an upcoming physical with my primary-care physician or a health crisis --these unreconciled contradictions will remain exactly that: unreconciled contradictions.

In Pennsylvania, we know that the governmental crisis is at hand.

 

We want free money

We want more government than we are willing to pay for so we elect candidates who promise to eliminate waste, corruption and inefficiency - and we delude ourselves into thinking that this will bridge the gap between what we want and what we are willing to pay.

More ingenious are the "free money" schemes presented to us, such as allowing gambling and sin taxes. These kinds of clich├ęd solutions have enormous appeal because they are true in some minimal sense  -- they do bring in money -- but they only serve the purpose of postponing the hard choices that should be made.

During the last gubernatorial campaign, Pennsylvania voters were adamant about demanding property tax "reform" but polls also showed that they were equally adamant about any increase in other taxes. Instead, they came to believe in the magic of legalized gambling - and the millions slots parlors would bring into the state treasury in fees and taxes.

It turned out, of course, that the money was never enough to reduce property taxes. So, what must be done?  Now, we are told me must expand gambling to include table games. Once again, we seize the opportunity to avoid hard choices.

In the same way, voters say they want a government that addresses society's problems rationally and effectively. But, as every elected official knows, they will be rewarded only if they bring home the bacon while promising to eliminate the pork barrel.

I can predict with certainty that this year candidates will be elected as reformers but will soon start 'going along to get along' so they can bring home a share of the spoils for their constituents.

An earmark here. A WAM there. A "magical" formula for bringing in new revenue without more taxation.  What are the cumulative results of this behavior? The political infrastructure of the Republic continues to be undermined.

 

Who is the hypocrite?

When I was in public office, I engaged this conversation by asking citizens what factors they believed should drive the funding of public schools. Invariably they would come up with very sensible ideas, such as taking into account the poverty of the students, the wealth of the district etc.

Having devised a reasonable system, fair on its face, I asked if they would accept such a system if it meant less money for their district. Without fail, they would reject their fair system if it meant less for their own district. What they wanted for themselves interfered with the decisions that needed to be made for the greater good.

The way out begins with this understanding: that what we want for ourselves individually and immediately is not synonymous with what is just and for the common good. If we prefer to have a just government but decide to support a government that is merely a place to satisfy our narrow interests whom should we blame?

Naturally, we blame the politicians. Then we label them hypocrites. We tell them we want honest and just government but we vote on their ability to deliver. We tell them to slice the pie fairly, but then we stand over them demanding a bigger piece for ourselves.

What we should do is look in the mirror and ask ourselves: Who is really the hypocrite here? Is it the politician who delivers the goods or the voters who demand them?

So, we have to decide - really decide - is our goal to get more for ourselves, our city, our ethnic group, etc.? Or do we want our politicians to be the true solvers of problems that are too large for us to solve individually.

It is time to put aside the hand wringing, finger pointing and whining that feeds the self righteous and the zealots. We should now assume the burden that the Founding Fathers anticipated - that we are the producers of government not merely its consumers. 

 

Robert O'Donnell is a Philadelphia attorney and former Speaker of the Pennsylvania House.     

 

 

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