If we’re not too dismayed by the nature of our politics when November 6 rolls around, we may be able to summon enough hope to go to the polls to elect candidates equipped to tackle today’s complex policy issues. What to do about the “creative destruction” of work for a huge sector of our job market, especially for the young; universal access to health care, the deficit—these issues (like most others) consist of many moving parts. It’s no mean feat to engage all those moving parts as we try to design inevitably imperfect and ideologically impure solutions.
The ability to imagine and navigate such solutions has been the strength of the best public servants Maine has sent to Washington, among them: Margaret Chase Smith, Edmund S. Muskie, William S. Cohen, George J. Mitchell, Jr., Olympia Snowe, and Susan Collins. What has set these individuals apart is their willingness to place thoughtful and informed deliberation above partisan posturing.
Lincolnville native Eli Pariser’s Filter Bubble (2011) warns against the mental self-isolation of those of us who rely on “favorite” Internet sites for our windows on the world. Even ostensibly neutral Google and Facebook use information gathered from our Internet travels to show us first what we want to see and read (and might want to buy, which is how they make their money). The result is a starved imagination, ill equipped to find and adopt diverse elements of political compromise.
Thoughtful and informed people get that way through regular use of our natural capacity for asking questions. Here are a few questions that we might ask as we ponder what to expect from candidates for Maine’s seats in the U.S. Congress:
Reduce Taxes: How do we know whether our taxes are too high? By comparing our tax rates with those of other countries like ours? By comparing our own federal tax burden with those who have larger (or smaller) incomes? By comparing Maine’s federal tax payments with the dollar value of what we get back from Uncle Sam?
For every dollar Mainers sent to Washington in 2010 ($5.9 billion in all), we received 61 cents back in federal assistance programs for state and local governments, and another 27 cents in federal procurements for work performed in Maine’s private sector–roughly a third of which went to our small businesses.*
Add Social Security, Medicare, and Veterans benefits and the total return in 2010 was $2.47, or a net profit of $1.47 on each Maine federal tax dollar. Reduce taxes? What are we willing to give up, and why?
Reduce Government: The size of the civilian federal workforce grew to its largest levels during the 1980s. It has declined steadily since then, varying about 5% over the last 20 years, and is now what it was at the end of the 1990s.
Thanks to the “privatization” of the federal government by every president since Ronald Reagan, the real growth of the government has been the five-fold increase since 1980 of dollars spent on private sector workers and facilities supported by federal contracts.
Thus to shrink the size of the federal footprint in Maine we would have to reduce significantly the $1.6 billion in federal dollars spent in 2010 alone for work contracted to Maine’s private sector. One can do an easy search in the federal procurement database [www.fpds.org] of Maine’s private sector contractors along with the federal programs that support them. Whose business or job would you offer up to federal budget cutters, and why?
Patriotism: All federal workers (including members of congress and the judiciary), military service members, and naturalized citizens have sworn to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” And the rest of us? Most of us know that the U.S. Constitution specifies the structure of our government, with its separation of powers, and the Bill of Rights. But the constitution also requires that the government of the American people “promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
What does ‘the general welfare’ mean? Does it include a population protected from the ravages of disease or debilitating accidents? If the Blessings of liberty include the right to reap the profits of business risks, do they also include fair and sustainable wages?
Only when those who appeal for our votes between now and November honestly tackle questions such as these can we begin to decide who deserves to represent Maine in Washington.
*(This essay first appeared in the Portland Press Herald for July 13, 2012)
* Sources: http://www.census.gov/govs/statetax/, http://www.opm.gov/feddata/HistoricalTables, http://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/fas-10.pdf, https://www.fpds.gov/Reports/manage/jsp/myReportsController.jsp.