the private sector, there is every incentive to economize –
to provide the best products at the lowest possible prices to ensure
customer loyalty. That is the road to profits. It is a road that
can take years of painstaking work to build.
In the public
sector, the incentive is always the opposite. It is to win elections,
which happen at least every other year and sometimes more often.
in the public sector is to spend, spend, spend, and then spend some
more. It is the tendency to treat citizens like little children
and spoil them rotten with endless “gifts,” something
the brilliant Alexis de Tocqueville warned us of more than a century
and a half ago.
It is the decision
to run up bills on the premise that more services today are always
better than living on a budget, no matter the costs to taxpayers
tomorrow or to generations of taxpayers yet to be born.
of this public-sector phenomenon was recently seen in New York,
where a transportation bond issue, supported by all major politicians
of every stripe, including “fiscally conservative” Republicans,
just passed in a landslide. But my example can be applied to almost
any state or city or other level of government in the country.
year the media blitz in favor of a $2.9 billion bond issue began.
Big labor unions combined with politically connected contractors
in a coalition to push through this bond issue, which was Proposition
Two on the ballot.
of special interests plastered posters all over the state. They
had their politicos constantly talking it up. Their rationale was
that the bond issue was all to the good; that there was no bad aspect
to any of it. And since there never seems to be anyone representing
the general taxpayer interests, there was no substantive debate
about the proposition. Still, it is a proposition that will add
about 6 percent to the state debt, which is already one of the highest
in the nation at $48 billion.
of this popular spend-money-hand-over-fist proposition weren’t
interested in that. Time and again they made the same arguments
in the mass media.
The bond issue
would provide projects in the city, primarily controlled by Democrats
and liberal Republicans. And there would be plenty of leftover pork
for upstate, generally a GOP region. For upstate, there was money
for roads. For New York City, there was the promise of new subway
lines. There was plenty of pork to go around; that was the implied
message. The project was just about equally divided between upstate
and downstate, between mass transit and roads, between a gang of
Republican pirates and a gang of Democratic pirates.
issue,” wrote the New York Times in what appeared to be a mainstream
voice, “has the support of [state] Comptroller Alan Hevesi,
the state’s fiscal watchdog.” It “represents a prudent
straightforward and transparent strategy.” The city comptroller
also endorsed the bond issue. The major mayoral candidates disagreed
with each other on myriad matters except on one: They agreed the
bond issue should be approved.
the bond issue promised hundreds of millions of dollars for New
York City’s infamous unbuilt Second Ave Subway. This leviathan
literature never mentioned a painful fact. A bond issue had been
approved in the 1950s to pay for the Second Avenue Subway. But here
was a project that was actually expected back in the 1940s. That’s
when the city took over the last privately managed “el”
lines, promising to save the nickel fare at the same time the system
was expanded and modernized. Since then, the system has contracted,
ridership levels have declined, and the fare has been raised many
But what happened
to the bond issue approved in the 1950s? It had to be spent on other
things because the subway system constantly ran in the red. Oh,
sure, Mayor John Lindsay of New York City, along with many other
politicians, actually helped break ground for the Second Avenue
Subway. But that was about 35 years ago and the project is nowhere
near completion! How many times will taxpayers be asked to pay for
the same project?
supporters this year, who never spoke about history, kept hammering
home that this would be a great thing. Who could say no to all these
wonderful new projects? Every major politician from Republican Michael
Bloomberg to Democrat Hillary Clinton said the bond issue was fabulous.
And beyond these projects, there was the classic promise of big
government – that more government spending will create more
120,000 new jobs across New York State,” was the promise of
supporters of Proposition Two. Was there no one who thought running
up some $3 billion more in debt was not a good idea?
Yes, but as
a citizens’ group, a group with little pull in the major media
and without a special interest, its opposition voice was hardly
consideration for the Citizens Budget Commission [CBC] is the high
level of state debt,” said Elizabeth Lynam, the group’s
The CBC, a
nonpartisan group, opposed the bond issue. “We found that New
York state has $10 billion more debt than it should. The state debt
should be reduced, not increased,” according to Lynam. That
statement of excessive debt levels could apply not only to the federal
government but also to most other levels of government in the nation.
Two won easily. It was never much of a fight. CBC was gallantly
battling against a category 5 hurricane called the Leviathan.
is the apotheosis of government – today, tomorrow, 35 years
ago, and 35 years from now. Yet drunken-sailor spending has been
the road to ruin for almost every republic in history. More spending
is the mantra under Republicans, under Democrats, and all the rest
of those who feel compelled to make endless impossible political
promises, from George H.W. Bush’s pledge not to raise taxes
to Bill Clinton’s middle-class tax cut. It is the nature of
government – all government.
It is why we
always seem to get more debt and government, despite voting for
countless politicians who campaign against big government and then
govern as though a socialist government was elected. It is an American
update of the famous British liberal leader of the 1890s, Sir William
Harcourt, who said, “We’re all socialists now.”
It is why strict
spending controls, incorporated into constitutional amendments,
appear to be the only way to stop our governments’ seemingly
permanent spending rampage.
I always vote
against bond issues.
Bresiger [send him mail]
is a business writer and editor living in Kew Gardens, New York.