12-17-14 – Who gets to decide what we can afford?

posted by Rob Roper

Paul Cillo of the Public Assets Institute posted remarks he made at the Vermont Digger forum on education finance crisis. He opened by saying, “What crisis?” then launched into series of charts, graphs and equations that illustrated, to his thinking, how Vermont’s spending on K-12 education is a model of sustainability that we should all be delighted with.

The numbers are well and good (though arguably cherry picked), but ignores the fact that on the campaign trail every candidate I heard from said that property taxes were the number one concern of their constituents. Imagine going into your doctor’s office complaining of severe chest pains only to have the MD tell you you’re wrong. You’re not in pain at all. Get outta here. You’d hit him over the head with that little rubber mallet they use to test your reflexes! Or at least you’d be tempted to.

Which gets us to the moral crux of this issue (and long time pet political peeve of mine). We so often hear left-wing politicians saying that they’re just “asking” taxpayers who “can afford to pay a little more,” so get out your wallet and pony up. First of all, they’re not asking. They’re taking the money, and using government’s monopoly on “legitimate” violence to do so. Second, who are they to be telling us what we can afford?

My 14-year-old son keeps insisting I can afford a fancy sports car. (If only I’d pay my fair share!) Maybe… if we downsized our house, and stopped putting money into his college fund, and somebody put a gun to my head perhaps we could buy it. But it’s not a good use of resources, and I am not willing to spend money on that. And that’s the key word people like Cillo and too many legislators in Montpelier aren’t interested: willing.

In a system based on political power coming from the consent of the governed, “willing” must accompany “able.” Willing and able. Each individual has different priorities. We are all trying to feed our families, put roofs over our heads and pursue happiness where and when we can.

So, it doesn’t matter, as Cillo points out as his exhibit A, that education spending has held relatively steady between 5% and 6% of Gross State Product. What matters is how that reflects in the bill each of us gets every quarter and how big (and bigger) a bite it takes out of our disposable income. Clearly, the current amount is more than a majority of us is willing and able to pay.

Policy makers who don’t realize that are not listening to the people they represent.

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute

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