Elections Change Nothing
by Joshua Katz
by Joshua Katz
It has been said many times that if voting could change anything, it would be illegal. One factor of the New York State education law serves well to illustrate this point. Under this law, school districts are required once per year to put their budgets up to vote. Choices are restricted to "yes" and "no." If the budget passes, it goes into effect. If it fails, the district is allowed to rewrite the budget and put it up to vote once more. If it still fails, and this is the key, the previous year's budget is implemented.
What this comes down to is not a vote on the tax levy, but rather a vote on an increased tax levy. If the budget is passed, you will pay more taxes than last year. If it fails, you pay the same taxes as last year.
Even so, it might seem that this mechanism can, in fact, impede the growth of the state and even, through inflation, reduce it. As we know, however, if this were the case, the law would never have been passed. Its purpose is to pretend that citizens have a role in their school budget system, so as to reduce their outrage over the increased bills each year, while ensuring that the budget will not fail. Let's investigate how this works.
Recall that a failed budget means that the district will collect the same amount of money as it did the previous year. Logically, since inflation doesn't add up to much in a single year, the district should be able to provide the same services as the previous year. However, built into every budget are automatic raises for district and school administrators, as well as sweetheart deals for unnecessary land purchases, building work, etc. which are not eliminated if the budget fails. As a result, services are indeed rolled back. The district will enter what is called ‘austerity' and many of its services will be eliminated.
I wrote a few weeks ago on this site about my misgivings regarding a standardized curriculum. Shortly thereafter, I ran into a woman I knew from my tutoring work. I had tutored her son in math. The boy was failing math horribly, and yet when I spoke to him, he demonstrated near full knowledge of the material he was supposed to know. Looking at his work, I noticed that full credit was being taken off for what were essentially stylistic problems. In some circumstances, he did do manipulations which were incorrect, and I agree that these should lose full credit even if the answer is right. In most cases, however, his thinking was absolutely correct, but followed a different line of attack than his teacher had. I explained the situation to his mother, explained that I could not be a successful tutor, and offered to help her speak to the teacher. When she communicated this information to the teacher, the reply was "Yes, I know full well that his method is correct and his answers are right. I was testing him on doing it my way, though, and he failed entirely at that."
Furious, his parents had taken him out of the high school and placed him into a program known as BOCES. In New York, BOCES schools offer a variety of curricular choices, mainly focused on technical and vocational training. Since his family owned a boat repair business, he studied boat and auto mechanics. Setting funding aside, I feel quite positive about BOCES. I can only imagine, of course, how much better it would achieve its purposes if it were private. In any case, the boy is now in his junior year and has already been conditionally accepted to an excellent engineering college.
His mother told me how, not able to keep up with tax increases, she had voted no on the budget and cheered when it failed. The district then announced their austerity plan. Of course, it included entirely eliminating the BOCES program, which would leave her son with no viable way to graduate from high school and pursue this college acceptance.
This, then, is the way ‘consumer sovereignty' is carried out in the public sector. First, make all uses and non-users alike, pay for the ‘service.' Then, provide a poor service, or, in the case of the standard high school curriculum, a positive harm. Of course, since most don't notice this and assume the schools are actually providing an education, private schools find it hard to compete with the government schools. When your competition can be attended at no additional cost, it is hard to compete indeed. Many parents who would prefer the private schools lack the ability to pay for them, while also paying for the government schools.
Of course, with all obligated to pay the bills, there is no reason not to continually raise prices and use the extra to pay yourself more. The only check on this is rising anger as the taxpayer is squeezed harder each year. This rises to the level of a real concern because school board members and administrators in many cases actually live in the community. They don't have the distance that the President does; they wish to be invited to block parties and have to shop in local stores. Thus, there must be a safety valve — a way this pressure can be released without being directed at the guilty parties. The obvious way to do it is by making the people themselves bear the guilt — let them do it to themselves, democratically!
The final task, of course, is to ensure that they will not actually use the choice they have been given. Logically, if the people are to do it to themselves, they must be given a choice not to. One good way to keep them from exercising it is by blackmail. After crowding out private provision of needed services, make it clear that those services are the ones that will be lost if they don't agree to the tax hike.
This isn't the only tactic used, of course. School administrators and teachers appear on local radio to discuss the need to "support our schools and our children." It goes without saying, of course, that principals don't mention that the tax hike will go primarily to raises for administrators, not expanded services. In most cases, the schools do not increase services at all each year, and put all the extra money into raises. Entire class days are spent "teaching" the students about the wonders of public school funding, and the importance of passing the budget. I went to public high school in New York, I remember it. Parents who are not particularly knowledgeable in politics or economics will find themselves hard put to deny their child's tearful request that they "go tonight and save my school…if you don't and the bad people win, I'll have no future."
Any time you hear a government advocating for democracy, rest assured that the election will change nothing. People will be blackmailed and bludgeoned into voting ‘properly.' If they choose not to do so, and vote the wrong way, they will simply be punished, like small children, until they learn to behave. It is with this in mind that I reflect on the American crusade for ‘democracy' in the Middle East.
June 15, 2006
Joshua Katz [send him mail] is Chief of EMS at the Town of Hempstead Park and Recreation for the summer. He has studied philosophy of mind, logic, and epistemology of economics from an Austrian perspective, and is a former graduate student in philosophy at Texas A&M, as well as holding a bachelor's degree in mathematics. He is planning to return to Texas after the summer, in order to seek work in EMS there. He enjoys a glass of port, a wedge of Brie, and a chapter of Cicero as a way to start his day.
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