Can I have a mulligan?
Skip Bertman once told me, during the height of his LSU dugout glory days, that America’s national pastime is not baseball—as George Will or Thomas Boswell might have us believe. Rather, he said offhandedly one muggy, yet otherwise nondescript, afternoon, our nation’s pastime is the “transferal of blame.”
“People don’t take responsibility for what happens,” he said. “It’s always the other guy’s fault.”
Nearly two decades later, the Bertman Postulate is supported by facts on a daily basis. At the first sign of trouble or failure, the response is almost universal: Blame everyone except the person in the mirror.
What’s apparent, however, is that over the past three or so years a new twist has emerged with our pastime—the do-over.
This is especially true in the political world, where elections now only have consequences until someone files a lawsuit and/or gets enough signatures on a recall petition. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker gets elected, does exactly what he said he would do on the campaign trail, and the response is to try to get him out of office in two years, rather than four. Our governor, Bobby Jindal, tells anyone listening during his re-election campaign that he’s going to cajole legislators into accepting his brand of K-12 education reform. He wins in a landslide, jams his reform through, and the lawsuits and recall petitions ensue. Barack Obama, running on a decidedly left message, is elected president, proposes center-left policies, and an opposition group spends the next three years trying to get him out of office by proving he’s not a U.S. citizen.
There is a collision of forces at work: 1) the massive baby boomer generation and its entitlement mentality hitting the age when it wants to collect what government once promised, 2) the dismissal of the notion of competition, winners and losers in favor of one in which every person is special and deserving of a trophy, 3) a significant economic recession that’s dramatically cut government revenues (and thus government’s ability to spend) at the local, state and federal levels, and 4) a disenfranchised middle class that’s angry as the left fights to protect the poor while the right fights to protect the rich.
Jay Cost, in an essay on “The Politics of Loss” for National Affairs, suggests the root issue is that government no longer has the cash to keep everyone happy. Whether one is talking about the federal government, Louisiana’s government or East Baton Rouge government, since the end of World War II there had usually been enough economic growth in the country, state and parish to share the wealth. Regardless of whether the Republicans or Democrats were in power, there was always enough money to cut taxes while also increasing spending. As Cost writes, “[A] political equilibrium was reached and preserved, more or less for 50 years.”
No longer. Slowing growth, unsustainable spending levels and—in the case of Louisiana—billions of dollars in tax cuts mean the days when lawmakers could give to one group without shortchanging others are over. “The politics of deciding who loses what, and when and how, is upon us,” writes Cost.
This is a perfect explanation of what’s happening both at the State Capitol and on the third-floor chambers of the Metro Council. Jindal and his allies used big election wins to enact massive tax cuts, controversial reform measures and budgetary gimmicks to keep the books balanced as revenues declined. Democrats have responded with protest press conferences, lawsuits and, now, a recall petition. Jindal is almost equally disliked by those on the far right who complain the governor’s use of one-time money—a practice he once declared as “criminal”—is bankrupting the state. Jindal’s response has been swift and severe political retaliation. The same basic scene is playing out in EBR’s Governmental Building, where tight revenues, soaring retirement costs and an overdedication of tax dollars has council members screaming over $50,000 jobs programs.
The public reaction? The rise of the Tea Party, a decidedly anti-tax sentiment and an angry middle class that believes it pays taxes to support the poor but gets none of the breaks doled out to the rich.
Transferal of blame slamming head-on with the new reality of government having to pick winners and losers has created a climate of anger, finger-pointing and hostility that likely won’t end until the economic fortunes of our nation, state and parish rebound.
Until then, for every action there will be the equal and opposite reaction of demanding a do-over.
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