How To Stop a Tax Increase
by David R. Henderson
by David R. Henderson
In my earlier piece on January 2, I told how I reluctantly became involved in the fight against a ½ cent increase in the local sales tax to fund Natividad, a badly managed government hospital. Lawrence Samuels, the person who encouraged me to help him out, was my co-debater on a panel with Mark Tunzi and Melissa Larsen, two doctors from Natividad. This narrative picks up where the earlier one left off, telling of our November 11 debate at a forum packed heavily with supporters of Measure Q, the sales tax increase.
Over and over again, people asked versions of the question, "What happens to health care for uninsured people when Natividad closes?" Lawrence and I kept answering that we couldn't know that it would close and that if it did, it would probably turn into a private hospital. In retrospect, I think this question wore me down. What I should have done each time is answered the question completely and then each time gone on to raise another point against Measure Q so that questioners in the audience would see that there was a cost to their side from asking the question.
I wondered why the same question kept coming up again and again. I think I found out when we took a 10-minute break. A few people came up during the break and said that they had written out questions that were much more critical of the tax increase than the questions being asked. Two people told me that they had written out questions about how we could justify using taxpayer money to provide medical care for illegal aliens, a group that is thought, correctly or not, to be a big part of the reason Natividad keeps losing money. My friend Tom told me that he had asked how much doctors at Natividad are paid. What I should have done, next chance I got, was answer quickly whatever question was asked and use the remaining time to point that the illegal-alien question had been raised with me at the break and then give my answer. I think I normally would have thought of that. But I hadn't had dinner, and I'm the kind of person who doesn't do well without regular meals, and I didn't think of it.
I did think of something, however, that was almost as good. After about the sixth time the question, "What do you do about medical care for poor people when Natividad closes down?", I said:
We've answered that question about five times now and I'll answer it again quickly. It's unlikely to close; it's more likely to be privatized. I want to point out to the audience, though, that the League of Women Voters seems to be very selective in the kinds of questions they're letting through. I talked to people during the break who told me they had written out questions that were more critical of Measure Q and that those questions haven't been asked.
After that, the ratio of critical questions to friendly questions seemed to switch from about 9 to 1 to 7 to 3. So maybe my method worked even better than raising the illegal alien question would have.
It's interesting how, when people get to a certain comfort level, some of their true beliefs emerge. Late in the debate, that happened with Melissa. She said that we should face the fact that free markets in medical care don't work and that we need ultimately to move to "single-payer health care" (the modern euphemism for socialized medicine.) I pointed out to the audience that Melissa had just lifted the veil a little and given us a peak. I said:
If that's the true agenda, then I can tell you it doesn't work. I'm from Canada and what we've learned is that socialized medicine doesn't mean that everyone gets medical care. It means that everyone is told they'll get medical care but they have to line up to get it. Canada's socialized medicine is really a form of price controls, with the price of every hospital stay and every doctor visit set at zero. As a result, no patient takes account of cost when choosing whether to get medical care. Doctors and hospitals are paid, of course, but the pay is set by government. The result is a perpetual shortage. Canada's socialized medicine is popular with most Canadians because most Canadians are healthy. But talk to people who have had serious medical problems and you get a very different picture.
I told of months-long waits between diagnosis and surgery. I also told the story, that I tell in my The Joy of Freedom, about the people in one southern Ontario town who had to wait 3 months to get a CT scan while people could get their dogs scanned within 24 hours of making an appointment. People were not allowed to pay for scans, I explained, because the Canadian government "cared" so much about people. But because the government didn't "care" about dogs, their owners were able to pay $300 to get them in.
At about 7:30 p.m., about ¾ of the way through this 2-hour event, I felt my mental and physical energy nosedive. I was hungry and no longer able to think as quickly as I usually do. So I stalled by asking them to repeat questions — and I deferred more and more to Lawrence, whose energy seemed boundless. One particularly important thing I remember him saying was in response to a question from the audience about what the money would be used for if Measure Q passed. The two pro-tax doctors said that they didn't know, that when the Measure passed, they would have to sit down and figure it out. Lawrence jumped on that point like an ant on honey. "You've been accusing us of not knowing what will happen if the Measure fails and now you admit that you don't know what will happen if the Measure passes," he said.
In retrospect, I think we made four main mistakes. First, it was obvious to Lawrence and me, both from the way most people in the 200+ audience seemed to know each other and from the high percentage of the audience wearing "Yes on Q" buttons, that 80+ percent of the audience were either hospital employees or families of hospital employees. But that wouldn't have been at all obvious to a radio audience. We should have pointed that out, and not just once but two or three times. Second, a related point is that we should have pointed out how well-funded the other side was and pointed out why: they were a special interest with jobs and pay directly at stake, whereas we represented the general interest of the taxpayer. Moreover, the two doctors on the other side were leading members of the special-interest group. Third, we should have used the term "tax increase" whenever mentioning Measure Q and, in fact, we should have used the term "permanent tax increase." Fourth, we should have done more research, although, with our budget, that was hard to do. Specifically, though, we should have checked public documents to find out the salaries of the two doctors on the other side. I suspect that their salaries exceed mine and I'm positive they vastly exceed the salaries of over 80 percent of the voters, and that fact would have been nice to know and might have useful at some point in the debate.
After the event ended, a woman from a Spanish-language TV channel interviewed me, asking me what I think should happen if Measure Q failed and Natividad closed. I looked at her annoyed and explained that we had no basis for claiming that Natividad would close if Measure Q failed.
That evening, after dropping off my friend Tom Lee, I got on the freeway and drove home at 80 miles per hour in a 65 mph zone, while playing rock music loud on my car stereo. I had a delicious feeling of freedom: whatever the outcome of the vote, I could still drive fast as long as I had my radar detector and I could still listen to the music I want. I was reminded of May 21, 1979, when I testified against a revival of the draft in front of U.S. Senator Sam Nunn of the Senate Armed Services Committee. After Tom Palmer, now of the Cato Institute, and I had both testified, we were walking outside in the beautiful late springtime in Washington, and Tom said, "It's proposals like this [Nunn wanted to bring back the draft] that remind me how much freedom we still have."
The late evening news showed pictures of the forum and one of the stations had an interview with both sides, with Lawrence Samuels representing our side. Until that point, our side had not been heard from. But the news played it as, "Controversy rages about Measure Q, the sales tax increase for Natividad." Later, Lawrence pointed out that this headline was a tremendous achievement in itself. If people always just see one side, he pointed out, many won't even think to question it but will go along with it. But if they hear that there's controversy, many will want to know more and will pay attention to both sides.
The next Sunday morning, November 16, I went outside to get my morning Monterey Herald, and noticed a huge front-page story, "Natividad's Shot at Recovery Unclear." The subtitle was, "Troubled Hospital Looks to Measure Q to Nurse it Back to Health." "Oh, no," I groaned. I was sure this article would lay out how important Natividad was and how it was absolutely vital that it get the new tax revenue.
Then I read the article. It turned out to be a straight news story that gave the history of Natividad back to 1953, pointing out that it had always been badly managed and had always been a huge drain on the county government. Later, when a reporter from the Herald asked us on election night what were the most important factors in our victory, Lawrence and I answered that one of the most important was the Herald's exposé of Natividad. I have to remember this when I give Lawrence and others and me credit for defeating the tax. Without that Herald exposé, who knows how the vote might have gone. That gives me some hope, because journalists looking for material on government boondoggles can find it and make a difference. But it also gives me fear, because what if Alex Friedrich, the author of the story, had decided not to do such thorough research?
From that day until the December 2 election, I tracked the letters in the Salinas Californian and the Monterey Herald, and noticed that the letters were running roughly 60/40 in favor of Measure Q. Given that the ratio of signs was roughly 4 to 1, that all of the TV and radio advertising was pro-Q, and that the Measure Q was budgeting over $400,000 for the campaign while the various small groups on our side spent about $4,000, all of it for signs, I found this heartening. Also heartening was that almost none of the names of the letter writers was familiar to me and that many of them were making the arguments we had made in our debate and in our letters. I'll never be able to verify this, but I feel in my bones that Lawrence's and my outspoken, unapologetic case against the tax increase was making it safer for non-activists to write letters critical of the tax.
One other device we used effectively was talk radio. During the next few weeks, I called Doug Moschetti's morning talk show a number of times when I had some new thought about Measure Q or when I wanted to respond to the arguments of the pro-taxers.
During the debate, I noticed that the other side had quit claiming that the tax was temporary, even though the campaign leaflet I had been handed at a local store had stated that "fact" in a prominent place on the flyer. That told me that we had been effective; they would no longer be making that claim. But once you have that kind of victory, there's a temptation to go on to other issues because that one is resolved. That does make sense in an academic seminar; it makes no sense in a political debate. Once you've won an important point (and if it isn't important, there's no sense in trying to win it), then you remind people of that fact. You do this for two reasons. First, people who had mistakenly accepted the other side's view might still accept it if they're not told the truth and, if no one is talking about it, they're not being told the whole truth. You can't assume that voters are following the issues as closely as you are. Second, it undercuts the credibility of the other side. "They misled us about this," voters might say to themselves, "so I wonder what else they're misleading us on." So I called Doug Moschetti's show at 7:30 a.m., which I judged to be close to peak driving time, and pointed out that, by their silence, the pro-tax side was admitting our point. And, just to drive it home, I pointed out that there was no automatic end to the tax after 10 years.
The other claim in the flyer that I went after was the statement by a paramedic who was an official in a local union that, "Measure Q has some of the strictest watchdog requirements ever established." I quoted his statement, making sure I referred to him as a union official and not as a paramedic, and then pointed out to the radio audience that I had read through the whole Measure and had found no meaningful watchdog requirements. Measure Q would have set up an 18-member advisory board, but the board had no power.
Finally, I had noticed that the pro-tax people had used, over and over, the following line: "It's only 5 cents a day for the average person." I told Moschetti how much the pro-tax side was using the "only 5 cents a day" argument. Then I said:
A standard problem in ethics classes is the following. You're a hotshot software engineer at a big bank. You figure out how to take a penny from the bank account of each of one million people. If you do so, you'll be $10,000 better off and they won't notice. Assume you can do it so that it won't even mess up their bookkeeping. Do you?
"No," said Moschetti adamantly.
"Exactly," I said, "and I would bet that the vast majority of your listeners would answer no. So what's the difference in principle between an individual stealing a penny from each of one million people and the government taking 5 cents a day from each of 400,000 people?"
I noticed that every morning during that campaign, my newspaper reading style differed from before the campaign. Instead of going through the newspaper in a leisurely way, I would check for stories about Measure Q and Natividad and then turn to the letters section to see who was saying what. At about 6:30 one morning, I read a letter from a couple who claimed that opponents of Measure Q were modern-day Scrooges. I pictured 10,000 to 20,000 people reading this letter and finding it convincing. I could imagine some of them saying, "Well, after all, the holiday season is approaching. I should be generous and vote for Measure Q." So I called up Doug Moschetti at KION and arranged to get on at about 7:30 a.m.
On the air, I quoted the couple's letter and then pointed out that they missed the point of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. In laying this out, I drew on a theme in my book, The Joy of Freedom:
Think about what happens when Scrooge wakes up after his horrible nightmare and realizes that he doesn't like the way he has been. Does he say, "Oh, boy, now I can vote for tax increases to help others?" No, he actually decides to give his own money. Or think about when he goes to the window and yells out to the little boy on the street to go to the butcher shop and buy a turkey for the Cratchits. Does he say, "Oh, and collect a tax from everyone on the street to pay for it?" Of course not. He realizes that he can change and that the way to be generous is to use his own money, not to vote to take other people's money.
What we had here in this campaign was an informal "Rapid Response" strategy similar to the one Clinton's campaign used in 1992. In virtually every community, there were people who had volunteered to call in to talk shows when they heard the talk going against Clinton, and then balancing the scales with their pro-Clinton comments. What I was doing was seeing what I thought would be the most compelling arguments on the other side, quickly formulating my response, and then going on radio and presenting it. I could imagine 1,000 or so people who read the Herald letter and found it compelling then hearing my comment within an hour and then many of them finding the Herald letter much less persuasive.
One day during the campaign, I received a call from Laurel Shackleford, the earlier-mentioned Managing Editor of the Herald. She asked me if I knew where the Measure Q proponents' estimate of $22 a year for the average person had come from. She had tried to find out and no one had been able to give her the source or the methodology for the estimate. I told her that I hadn't either, but that my estimate was substantially higher. First, we could probably take their $25 million estimate as being relatively reliable because presumably it was based on good estimates of what the existing sales tax was bringing in and a further half-percent increase was unlikely to cause a large decline in sales. One nurse who wrote a letter to the Herald cited an estimate that 40% of the revenue would be paid by tourists, leaving $15 million to be paid by residents. The recent Census data I had checked showed that there were about 407,000 residents in Monterey County. So, dividing $15 million by 407,000, the average resident would pay about $37 a year, not $22. A few days later, the Herald's editorial on Measure Q appeared. It cited my $37 estimate and, even better, didn't name me. That way, it sounded authoritative in a way that it wouldn't have if it had named an opponent of Measure Q as the source. After laying out all the problems with the sales tax increase — its lack of a sunset clause, the sorry history of mismanagement, the lack of accountability — the editorial concluded that these problems could be fixed (How? Blankout, as Ayn Rand used to say) and went on to advocate a Yes vote.
In retrospect, our trip to the Herald earlier that month seemed to have been ineffective. But now I'm not so sure. It was probably the fact that we hammered on mismanagement and phony sunset clauses that caused the Herald's editors to cite those facts so centrally in their editorial. And it might even have been because of our emphasis on mismanagement that they chose to run a 3-part series on the Natividad mess. I've come to think of editors of newspapers as politicians. They want to give a little something to everyone. The editors probably knew that a substantial majority of their readers would be pro-Q and they wanted to throw a bone to them by advocating Q. But they also wanted to satisfy a vocal minority and, probably more important to them, carry out the traditional function of a newspaper by reporting important and relevant facts. Thus the facts they cited in their editorial and their decision to run a few stories laying out Natividad's history.
When I had first joined the campaign, I had wondered what, if any, response I would get from my colleagues at the Naval Postgraduate School and from people generally in the community. A number of my colleagues have commented in the past, generally favorably, when I have an article in Fortune or the Wall Street Journal. But local politics is different for two reasons. First, a much higher percent of my colleagues and of my neighbors read or listen to local media than read Fortune or the Wall Street Journal. Second, local issues tend to generate more passion, I think because people feel more in control of local issues and feel hopeless about their ability to control national issues. I'm known somewhat in my town of Pacific Grove for my 10 years of coaching young girls in basketball, which began when my daughter started in 3rd grade and continued long past her participation because I enjoyed it so much. But, other than that, I'm somewhat anonymous in my community. So would people's attitudes to me change?, I wondered.
I'm happy to report that they did. I noticed it first at a Navy school retirement party for a colleague. I went up to say hi to a senior economist colleague, one whom I've always liked and respected as an economist, but who, partly because he's in a different department, I have not talked to at length for more than a decade. "I want to thank you for all you're doing for us taxpayers. You're performing a real public service," he said.
I beamed and decided to say something that a fellow economist would appreciate. "You're welcome. I've calculated how much money I've spent on this campaign and estimated the value of time I've put into it, and I've already put into it more than the present value of the amount I'll pay in this tax over my lifetime." We both chuckled.
A few minutes later, I approached a senior colleague from the Math department who said approximately the same thing. Although I'm guessing that I have colleagues who disapprove, they were lying low. After the campaign ended, one junior economist colleague in another department e-mailed me his congratulations and said that he thought we should have emphasized the regressive nature of the tax and, therefore, the fact that the tax would have added to the very poverty that the revenues were supposed to solve one of the effects of. I replied that he was right, but that, with a limited budget, we could do only so much. I suggested, though, that for the next sales tax fight, he write such a letter to the paper.
In the community generally, I received an even more positive response. I ran into people in my everyday life who volunteered to me that they liked what I was doing and thanked me for it. After the campaign ended, a number of people volunteered that they and their spouse had voted "No." One woman who had a daughter attending the same high school as my daughter wrote me a nice note thanking me and when I called her to acknowledge her note, we talked for half an hour. When I called a neighbor about a completely unrelated matter, she told me she had voted No and that she had been an employee at Natividad for 20 years and it was so badly run that it was beyond hope. So one of the most positive unintended consequences was that I felt like more a member of my community and more like a respected community leader.
I also learned a lot about local politics that I hadn't thought about, but that, after I learned it, made total sense. One specific lesson stands out. I had lunch one day with a group of people, including a prominent local Republican who was a big fan of my book, The Joy of Freedom. He thanked me for all my efforts. I accepted his thanks and asked him, "Where are the Republicans on this? How come you guys haven't come out against Measure Q? And how come none of you have contributed any money to our campaign?"
His answer was blunt. "Look at the list of supporters of Q," he said, "and you'll see almost every prominent local politician. Once the local politicians line up almost unanimously on one side, you can't oppose them publicly if you're in a business in which you depend on local government approval to operate your business." I knew he was in such a business, and if I named it, people in my area could quickly figure out the name of the person I was talking to, which is why I won't name his business. But the conversation reinforced my view, that I got when I testified in front of the FDA in 1995 and saw how deferential drug company testifiers were compared to how undeferential I was, that many people in this country no longer have freedom of speech because government officials can use their discretionary power to punish them for saying things the officials disapprove of. In fact, I later heard that one prominent local person who is almost a libertarian actually gave a large sum to the Yes on Q campaign because he wanted local government approval of a big project.
During the campaign, Lawrence also lined me up to be in a discussion with Mary Ann Leffel, the earlier-mentioned person on the other side, on the local public radio station. The discussion was to be taped and condensed, which is not ideal, because the producer can cut the parts that make one side look good and the other side look bad. Still, it made sense to take advantage of this free publicity. Even if, in the worst case, the editing turned out to be totally biased against our side, we would still get radio time in which people heard someone sensible criticizing the tax increase. As it turns out, the editing was done quite fairly.
Not so the initial question asked of me, though. The questioner first asked Mary Ann her basic case for Measure Q. A fair questioner would have then asked me my case against Q. But instead, because Mary Ann had claimed that without the tax increase, Natividad would probably shut down, the questioner followed up by asking me what would happen if Natividad shut down. I answered that she had no basis for believing it would and that if it did shut down as a government hospital, it would probably emerge as a private one. Then, in little bits throughout the 30-minute taping, I circled back to make the case that he should have allowed me to make up front in response to a question.
I've done a fair amount of talk radio over the years, and the main reason, I think, that it takes so much energy is that I'm constantly having to be vigilant to make sure that I get across what I came to say, while still being responsive to the questioner. That takes a lot of mental juggling. And although I needed to go to work after the interview, I felt like going home for a nap.
The best point I made was when Mary Ann admitted many of the management failures at Natividad and then pointed out that in the last year, they had cleaned up many of them: they had improved their billing procedures, for example, and had instituted co-pays for everyone who came to the hospital. I replied:
That's tremendous news and, to the extent you were responsible for those measures, Mary Ann, you deserve a lot of credit. But I guarantee that if you had had this tax increase two years ago, with a new $25-million revenue stream coming from it, you never would have instituted these efficiency measures. The way we're going to see more positive reform at Natividad is if Natividad doesn't get rewarded for past failures.
My second-best point came after I made what had become my standard statement that the tax increase was permanent. I didn't expect Mary Ann to challenge it, but she did. She replied, "If Measure Q passes, you can bet that I'll be watching closely to make sure the money is spent well. And if I see that it's not, I'll be going to the Board of Supervisors meetings in nine and a half years and making my views known."
This seemed like a weak argument to me. I replied, "I have no reason to doubt your integrity and from what I've seen, you seem like a person of integrity. But I think you're overstating your power. You can't control the Board of Supervisors. They'll do what they want to do. And the hospital will get so used to that revenue stream that I guarantee that 10 years from now, the Board of Supervisors will think it vital."
Throughout the campaign, day after day, letters on both sides poured in to the two major daily newspapers, the Monterey Herald and the Salinas Californian. And day after day, Lawrence Samuels made sure that the signs that were stolen one day were replaced that evening.
Around the time of the November 11 debate, I made a bet with Lawrence. I bet that we would get 38% of the vote and he bet 40%. On December 2, the evening of which the vote count would be announced, I realized that I had emotionally invested myself in a positive outcome. I confessed to a friend that if the tax increase passed, I would have a tough evening. Yes, I would bounce back the next day, but, still, I badly wanted to win. We decided to have a "victory" party at Tom Lee's house in Seaside and Lawrence invited the press. That morning, I read Lawrence quoted in the paper that we would be having a party at a private home and celebrating with champagne and pizza. I called Lawrence up and said, only half-jokingly, "Lawrence, if you're going to be a regular activist, then you need to spend at least half an hour at the David Henderson school of political rhetoric. We aren't having a party at a private home; we're having a party at a private home in Seaside [Seaside is the lowest-income part of the Monterey Peninsula]. Otherwise, people will think Pebble Beach. And we aren't having champagne and pizza; we're having beer and pizza."
That night, when I got to the party, a local TV reporter was already there. I could tell by the 30-foot tall mast on the truck outside and all the wires leading from the truck to Tom's house. The whole event made me realize what friends who've studied TV news have been telling me for some time: how staged the whole thing often is. Rather than wait around until the results were in, they wanted to have one clip to use if we won and one clip to use if we lost. So that's what they did. Imagine you've just won and now tell me how you feel and why you won; imagine that you've lost and now tell me how you feel and why you lost.
That TV newscaster left and then the party started. Most of the 10 or so people there were small "l" or big "L" libertarians (I'm a small "l" libertarian who's registered Republican) and we had pizza, beer, soda, champagne, and salad as we talked about political ideas, our lives, the campaign, everything. At 8:10, ten minutes after the polls closed, a Libertarian friend in Salinas who was closely tracking the count in the Salinas voter registrar's office, called and said that of the 66,000 votes counted so far (virtually all the votes that had been mailed in up to the day before), about 62% were Yes votes. I pulled out a scrap of paper and did some quick calculations. A minute later, I announced to room of about 10 people that we had won.
"Why are you so sure?," asked the host, Tom Lee. I started to show him my math and then decided that it would be more fun and more illuminating to show it to everyone. So he got an easel, a big pad, and a black marker from his closet and I laid it out:
Let x be the number of additional Yes votes they need and assume, highly unrealistically, that they have engaged in such massive fraud that all votes yet to be counted are Yes votes. Then let's solve for x.
We know that 66,000 votes have been counted and approximately 40,900 of them (62%) are Yes.
For Measure Q to win, 40,900 + x all divided by 66,000 + x must exceed 66.6%. Solving, x must exceed 9,000. And, realistically, even the most massive fraud can't cause more than 90% of the uncounted votes to be Yes votes and so x must really exceed 10,000. And, preliminary indications are that there are fewer than 8,000 votes to be counted.
Shortly after, Larry Parsons, the reporter for the Salinas Californian, whom I had come to respect for his even-handed reporting, called and asked if we were ready to declare a victory. We absolutely are, I said, and I told him my reasoning. "Sitting here in our newsroom, we came up with a number like 10,000 too," he said.
Around that time, a reporter for the Herald, Jonathan Segal, showed up. I asked Jonathan where he was from and we talked briefly about the bizarre politics in my town, Pacific Grove, that were part of what he covered. I've always found it useful to be nice to reporters and to ask them about their background; you probably get marginally better coverage and marginally better respect. I confess, though, that the main reason I'm friendly with reporters is the same as the reason I'm friendly with cops, people in stores, soldiers checking my ID, TSA employees going through my bag when I travel, people I walk by on the sidewalk, and people generally. It's that I like the vast majority of people I run into and, for me, connecting with people in this way is a huge part of the pleasure I get in life. Let's face it: no one's paying us to be activists and so we'd better look for the sources of enjoyment in it that we can find.
Lawrence broke out the champagne and I passed around copies of the old cadre-building, fun campfire song, "Vive le compagnie." Tom Lee and I have led this at various events; my previous most-fun time I led it was at a lecture I gave at a Cato Institute summer seminar in San Diego last summer, when 100 people sang it out. As we sang, I invited Jonathan to join in, and, of course, he didn't because he probably felt the need to maintain his distance as a reporter. Sure enough, in the Herald the next day, he reported our song — and the champagne.
A little later, Ann McGrath, an attractive reporter from the local NBC affiliate, showed up and, because Lawrence was busy on the phone with a print reporter, he asked me to handle the interview. Ann was covering it as a horse race rather than as a campaign of ideas, which, I have found, is common among reporters. So she asked me, before we went on camera, whether we had won. I told her we had and explained my reasoning, pointing to the pad on the easel. Her cameraman loved it and started doing close-ups of the calculations. She told me that on the way over, they were doing the math mentally and that, by adding increments of 1,000 votes at a time and calculating each time, they had come up with my 9,000 to 10,000 result. Sharp lady, I thought to myself. So I went on camera and said that we had won and that the reason was that even if all of the remaining votes were Yes votes, there would have to be almost 10,000 of them and we didn't think there were that many yet to be counted.
I had promised my daughter to be home by around 9:00 p.m. — it was her birthday the next day — and so about 9:15, I left. I gave a ride to Tory Schwenk, one of the young activists in the campaign, and on the way he told me about his sign-placing strategy. He had gone out late at night every night to replace the signs that had been stolen that day. "Let's say I had put up 6 signs in one place one night," he said, "and the next day all 6 were gone. The next night I would put up 7 in that place. I wanted the other side to feel the futility of it and to say to themselves, 'Gee, the other side must be organized.'" When he told me that story, I flashed to my favorite line from the movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when Butch and Sundance are chased day and night by some nameless guys who never lose their trail and, when they realize that, they say, in awe, "Who are those guys?"
That night, KCBA, the local FOX affiliate, led the 10:00 p.m. news with the story that the election was too close to call. "That'll teach them to tape the interviews rather than do them live," I chortled to myself, "Wait until they get scooped by KSBW." Sure enough, at 11:00, KSBW, the local NBC affiliate, led the news with an interview of me explaining that we had won, with my trusty calculations in the background, and then Ann McGrath on camera basically making my point in her own words. I must confess that laying those calculations out for the people at the party and for Ann McGrath were, for me, the most pleasurable part of the campaign. What can I say? I'm a teacher at heart.
Then came one of the most shocking things I've seen in local politics. One of the members of the Board of Supervisors vowed that, despite the failure of Measure Q, Natividad would not close. "What?", my wife screamed involuntarily. Throughout the whole campaign, the proponents' main argument was that without the new tax revenue, the hospital would close. Yet here they were — all the Board of Supervisors had supported the tax increase — saying, less than two hours after losing, that it wouldn't. The whole campaign had been built on a lie.
At 7:00 o'clock the next morning, the phone woke me up. It was Mark Carbonero of KION radio. He wanted to set up an interview for 7:15. So I called back and we reviewed why the tax increase had been defeated. I then quoted what the supervisor had said the night before and commented, "I'm used to people admitting that they lied during a campaign. I'm not used to people admitting it less than two hours after they found out they lost."
Then I went out the front door and got the newspaper. The headline blared: MEASURE Q FAILS
The numbers given were 40,436 Yes votes (61.3%), 25,455 No votes, and about 7,000 ballots yet to be counted.
Interestingly, though, the front-page picture was of the losers at their party. The picture of the winners (our small band of brothers and sisters) was relegated to the back of the newspaper. It was like reading that Clinton had won reelection in 1996 and seeing Bob Dole's picture on the front page and Clinton's on the back. No matter. We won.
(Next time: We learn some important facts left out by the pro-tax people, we ally with a new antitax person, and I consider what I learned about activism that will guide me in future political action.)
(This is the second of a three-part series.)
January 9, 2004
David R. Henderson [send him mail] is an associate professor of economics at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California and a research fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He was previously a senior economist with President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey (Prentice Hall, 2002). His web site is www.davidrhenderson.com.
Copyright © 2004 by David R. Henderson. Permission to reprint or use in any way is hereby granted as long as the author and title are cited.