The politics of want
Humans have the amazing capacity to ignore root causes and focus strictly on the symptoms. For example, instead of dealing with the underlying reasons for Baton Rouge's horrendous traffic (decades of poor planning decisions, the lack of a working street grid and an over-reliance on the automobile), we prefer instead to attack the symptom of roads disguised as parking lots by simply making those roads wider. We do this because it's less painful and less expensive than a systemic overhaul, and it satisfies our need for immediate gratification. The problem, however, is that by failing to address the root causes of traffic, that overcrowded four-lane road soon becomes an overcrowded six-lane road.
Moreover, modern society has adopted the belief that each of us is endowed with the inalienable right to pursue the kind of happiness that comes only from splurging on the “wants” in life—even if that means sacrificing our “needs.” It's why there are some families living in Country Club of Louisiana mansions who survive paycheck-to-paycheck. It's why someone plans a weeklong vacation to Disney World despite being unemployed for more than a year. It's why, during a time when state government is cutting funding for higher education and health care, Louisiana House Speaker Chuck Kleckley can find $1 million so that Barbe High School in Lake Charles can install a synthetic turf football field. (Kleckley has since reversed field after coming under a barrage of criticism.)
These decisions of arrogance and self-interest are rooted in the fact that we're living in the most narcissistic time the world has ever known.
These human frailties are especially troublesome for elected officials, who must balance the immediate, self-interest wants of the electorate against their own immediate, self-interest wants. Harder still is pulling off this high-wire act when money is tight.
Political scientist Harold Lasswell in the mid-1930s defined politics as “who gets what, when and how.” Some economists will object, saying, instead, that's the definition of economics. Both sides can argue from truth, but for our purposes what's interesting is what happens when the declining economics of a nation, state or parish collide with the political world of who gets what, when, and how.
In Louisiana, government's ability to spend is steadily declining as a result of massive tax cuts, ever-increasing tax incentives, rampant public pension liability, a tread-water economy, the phasing out of post-Katrina federal largesse, and an abhorrence of new taxes by the governor and strict-letter fiscal conservatives. Consequently, state government no longer has the financial resources to keep most constituents relatively happy, as it has essentially been able to do since the end of World War II. In today's political world, elected officials must pick winners and losers. That, of course, has produced open hostility from those told to do without.
Which is why now is the time for Gov. Bobby Jindal and his allies in the Legislature to show the leadership necessary to elevate the debate and start focusing on this state's root cause problems, rather than dabbling with the symptoms of those problems. Passing school choice options is fabulous, but that does little to address the out-of-control poverty problem that makes public education so difficult. This state spends $9 billion annually to mitigate poverty and almost nothing to actually solve it.
If Jindal is serious about producing a “Louisiana miracle,” he'll lead the charge to junk state government's current financial model in favor of priority-based budgeting. And those priorities must be set based on what's important to this state's future, rather than those of deep-pocketed special interest groups or myopic agendas.
The money no longer exists to fund our wants. It's time to focus exclusively on our needs.
Radical change is never easy. It's even more difficult when the results aren't immediate. Yet strategically attacking problems with collaborative, long-term, workable solutions regardless of one's ideology or self-interest is the difference between leaders and politicians.
Louisiana needs leadership. We require politics of need.
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