Wednesday, July 09, 2008

My dissonant inbox


We humans have a tendency to seek out information that reinforces our pre-existing beliefs. I'm worried that I'm brainwashing myself by reading and listening to too much pro-free-market, anti-central-planning media, so I try to expose myself to progressive points of view on economic issues.

My email inbox this morning was particularly dissonant. I'm on the mailing lists for both the Center for Small Government, which is trying to repeal the Massachusetts income tax, and The Coalition for Our Communities, which is absolutely opposed to repealing the tax.

It seems to me the key questions are:
  • What does Massachusetts state government spend it's money on? Bridges and roads? Health care? Police? Higher education? Programs to help the poor? (answers at: http://www.mass.gov/bb/gaa/fy2008/app08/ga08/hdefault.htm ).
  • How much of the budget goes back to local communities (and do richer communities get less, per-capita, than poorer communities)? (I did some spot-checking for rich and poor communities, and it looks like state aid, chapter 70, and chapter 90 are nicely progressive).
  • Does Beacon Hill spend more or less per-capita than other states? (the massbudget.org folks like to use "spending as a percentage of personal income", which seems like an odd measure to me-- do richer people need more government services than poorer people?)
  • How fair is the income tax, compared to other taxes and fees the state collects? (pretty fair, as far as I can tell)
Unfortunately, both the pro- and con- websites aren't very good at answering those questions. The Vote NO website is using the Bush war-on-terror strategy-- scare tactics. Risk! Unsafe! Cuts! Fragile!

The anti-income-tax website is using a shotgun approach, appealing to idealism, putting up misleading statistics (like using non-inflation-adjusted budget numbers), and talking about how they're not fringe lunatics (... but it doesn't help that their home page looks a little bit like www.timecube.com-- lots of colors, really long, lots of subjects on One Big Page....).

Neither is very convincing. My gut feeling is that repealing the state income tax would be irresponsible, and if we're going to repeal a tax, it should be the sales tax; at least the income tax is reasonably progressive (whereas the sales tax is pretty darn regressive).

Both sides agree that the state budget should be even more transparent. One change I'd like to see, at the Local, State, and Federal levels, is to put budget numbers in perspective. For example, I have no idea whether or not $5,889,274,147 (almost six billion dollars) is the right amount of money to spend in Massachusetts on Health and Human Services. I have trouble imagining six billion dollars.

A billion is too big a number for my little brain to handle. Divide by either the state population, or divide by the number of people in the state below the poverty line, and I can begin to understand:

State Health and Human service spending per-capita per-year is about $900. About 10% of Massachusetts citizens have incomes below the poverty line ($11,000 per year), so if Health and Human Services spends all their money on those poorest people, that's $9,000 per poor-person per year, not counting education spending for poor kids, which is a different part of the budget. Oh, and not counting affordable housing. Or early education. Or labor and workforce development.

Sigh. I feel slightly better than I did three hours ago, when I started my state budget spelunking. But I also feel like I'll never really figure out whether or not our tax dollars are being spent wisely. I don't think anybody is smart enough to figure that out; that's why I believe in democracy and free markets and not benevolent dictators. There's gotta be a better way...

1 comment:

Joseph Moroco said...

There is a bit of a disconnect between Massachusetts natives and the smart people (c’est vous, mon ami) who came here for school or a career.

We natives, know that our politicians are lying. We may like our rep or senator, but we know any relation between what they say and truth is not intended. We may even be part of the corruption, such as some of us having jobs at the "big dig.* Still we all know.

We know there is vast leakage in Massachusetts. It is at all levels. The number of sinecures inside 128 is great, but per capita around the University in Amherst, one might venture it is a respectable (maybe wrong word choice) percentage.

You are right about inflation and the budget. Still, I would not die of fright over this. anything that causes people to actually make the solons think would be all to the good.

I covered selectmen’s meetings for a local paper. I have sympathy for the boards' attempts to juggle budgets. I also understand why overrides are rejected. One of the last battles I covered dealt with the brave attempt of the board to save the venerable old town hall. the override was defeated. I view with horror the thought that it might be replaced with an ugly chain drugstore, but I understand the people saying enough.

When I say “the people” I suspect I mean folks who make considerably less than you.

As to progressive versus indirect taxes, I agree with the founding fathers on the subject but that discussion is for another day.

Off topic, there was a discussion of taxing Harvard. You know that hedge fund in Cambridge that partially subsidizes a small, elite young adult daycare.

*Friends have told me how little work they did for excellent pay.