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Little Big Victories

Hoping for a wider progressive trend

It is no small achievement that the Erie County Legislature restored almost $1 million to the small cultural organizations that might have gone lights-out under the outgoing Republican county executive’s last budget. The cultural sector in Erie County is a small part of the region’s $40 billion economy, but $323 million worth of goods and services, and more than 4,000 full-time equivalent jobs, would have shrunk far below those numbers had the self-acclaimed “businessman” who led Erie County government for four years held sway. Chris Collins thought entirely within the balance-sheet. He not only demonstrated no awareness of the economic consequences of public policy, he never showed that he saw he could shape the region beyond the limited formal powers of a mere county-level leader, because he, and Republicans, convinced themselves that the public part of the economy is all cost and no benefit.

The electorate here reawakened to the fallacy of government as inhibitor of community progress when things got tough and reliance on government grew. Economic anxiety among the moderate-income 99 percenters may have been awakened by the strutting, the pomposity, the rudeness, and the bad taste of the nouveaux riches of the one percent hereabouts—and by the new reality that lots more working families started needing programs like Food Stamps. Progressives would love to believe that self-awareness or class-consciousness now rules, but not so fast. Political psychologists from Mark Twain to Hunter S. Thompson to the ever-incisive Stephen Colbert have all cogently explained why it is that the American voter swings from adoring to spurning Spaulding Lake-style conspicuous consumption and the peculiar moral blindness that inevitably accompanies it. The consensus among the pundits: They say it differently, but it comes down to an expectation that what’s here today can be gone tomorrow, and that in our American democracy, there’s no real place for a permanent monied elite that can lord it over us. We can tolerate overpaid actors and athletes and faraway paper-doll royals, but our politicians had better have a middle-class outlook.

In a county that has a median household income that is about $10,000 lower than the New York State median household income, and twice the level of poverty in its capital city Buffalo than in the county at large—a city in which 77 percent of the school kids are so poor that they qualify for free school lunches—the “I’m a businessman” act wasn’t going to last very long anyway, not unless the rich guys around here started hiring a lot more of the not-rich. (It is hard not to notice, by the way, that more than 40 percent of children in Erie County’s 28 school districts are eligible for free or subsidized lunches.) The job numbers are inching toward better and away from bad, but inevitably, there’s a time lag between achieving a comfortable level of re-employment and that day when the region, the state, and the country actually start feeling that normalcy has returned.

Our new crop of regular-folks elected officials have another burden to cope with that’s not of their own making: a slow but definite increase in inflation. There isn’t much awareness of inflation being promoted by the major media, but there have been little hints, like all those stories of how Thanksgiving dinner cost anywhere from 15 percent to 30 percent more to put on the table this year compared to last year. Car prices are up about four percent from last year, but maybe we don’t notice because more of the cars being sold nowadays are from GM, Ford, and Chrysler, and those companies are hiring actual Americans again, including a few right here. Housing sales are actually pretty steady in the Buffalo area (though there is huge demographic shift underway, leading to housing gluts in Amherst and in Cheektowaga and West Seneca); nationally, housing is still in very bad shape. But here, and across America, gasoline is edging up near $4 a gallon again. The growing burden of energy costs on household incomes is very real.

Nevertheless, electronics are selling like crazy for Christmas, and brutish consumer behavior is back in the aisles of the discount stores. Not enough people are back at work, but there’s enough consumer demand that sales tax receipts to states are on the rebound, according to the latest monitoring report from the Rockefeller Institute.

It is a commonplace that our relationship to money gets expressed in our political choices. This year, in the bellwether Western New York media market, the choice was for a sober, non-flashy, pro-stability, pro-government set of candidates. This week, Governor Andrew Cuomo, who can justly claim both to have cut taxes for moderate-income families and to have raised taxes on millionaires (even though he actually reduced the effective rate on those same millionaires), came to town to praise the economic efficacy of the ongoing great public works project called the state university system. The message now, again, is that the public sector has a legitimate role in the economy of this place, which used to be home of the Reagan Democrat, the archetypical Catholic who had switched from being a Northern union-member Democrat to being an aspirational Sunbelt Republican.

But here’s the question: Are today’s Democrats confident enough to make the decisions about old problems as well as the new threats that will be pouring in from the outside world?

Trouble ahead, trouble behind

Barack Obama suffers now from absurdly high expectations. The other day, he quoted Joe Biden, who always asks that voters compare him not to the Almighty but to the alternative. Every time one thinks that newly elected officials will bravely challenge the status quo, one should remind oneself about the problem of underperforming schools. Time and time again, in studies going back to the mid-1960s, it ha been proven that leaving poor kids isolated in school buildings where eight out of 10 kids are poor dooms even the best teachers of the most talented kids to almost certain disappointment, if not outright failure. This is true in Buffalo, which will soon have a new study of the connection between poverty and achievement. It is true in Syracuse, which two years ago was portrayed in Gerald Grant’s stunningly clear book Hope and Despair in the American City. But today, we do not hear Cuomo, or Erie County Executive-elect Poloncarz, or Members of Congress Slaughter, Higgins, or Hochul, or Senators Schumer and Gillibrand, or President Obama, even mention the need to integrate kids by income. The social scientists, statisticians, economists, and educators all know, and have known for five decades, that mixing up the social classes in schools is a recipe for success, and that leaving them isolated is a recipe for failure. But no Democrats talk about this, despite their new electoral mandate. Republicans, by contrast, unabashedly speak directly to this issue: Republicans demand that schools be separate and unequal. Democrats avoid the issue, avoid the science, avoid regionalizing schools or merging school districts or mixing the social classes because that would mean a long, hard slog. Republicans, meanwhile, speak bluntly in defense of the prerogatives of the haves.

Nor do Democrats talk forcefully about energy. Engineers and utility executives, like the CEO of California’s NRG corporation, speak openly about how close we are to having solar power that can achieve “grid parity” with power generated by fossil-fuel-burning plants. Do Democrats have a position? Well, not really. Who is the senior Democratic leader, locally, statewide, or nationally, who is out there warning about peak oil, the coming oil crisis, or the urgency of green-powered public transport? Republicans, meanwhile, are forthright about their position on energy. They’ve been purchased outright by the fossil fuel industry, so they advocate for the fossil fuel industry, and impugn solar, wind, and other alternatives.

That being said, we should be delighted that our Democratic governor engineered a bipartisan deal to raise the top New York State income tax rate. We should be delighted that our Democratic president continues to hammer home his 1988 warning that income polarization is bad for democracy. Really, we should: As Paul Krugman and every other fact-oriented economic historian has pointed out, the period from 1945 to 1975 was a veritable golden age of highly progressive taxation, highly productive industry, and general and growing prosperity, enabled by massive investments in public infrastructure including huge state university systems like New York’s. And, of course, by cheap, abundant oil.

But other economists, including the often gloomy Eric Janszen of, foresee a set of calamities in the next few years—troubles so big that a tepid, squishy version of 1950s Eisenhower, 1960s Rockefeller, or 1970s Nixon liberalism won’t be adequate.

Janszen says that we’re in for a huge increase in oil prices as soon as the collapse of the Assad dictatorship in Syria unleashes a wider Middle East war, starting next year sometime. Then, as a result, we can expect major inflation of between six percent and 10 percent a year, and a return to recession—and that only a massive increase in public debt to finance a massive infrastructure and energy conversion program will bring us back to some semblance of economic health.

A Christmas wish list

At the recent, unheralded Washington conference on peak oil, the topic wasn’t war and conflagration, but many scholars were willing to predict what Janszen sees—namely, big oil price increases in the next couple of years.

Progressivity in taxes emerges, then, as a hopeful sign that Democrats at least know one thing about how money and politics go together, which is, one hopes, an indication that they can embrace other issues. Can we talk about energy? Can we talk about public transportation, like what operating a bus system will cost when diesel is $6 or $8 a gallon? Can Democrats, the people who just won office again, talk amongst themselves about policy-making at the regional, state, and national level that could be consistent, connected, maybe even coordinated?

One wonders. Yes, we live in a home-rule state, where today, school district budgets all happen within enterprise boundaries that nobody here is challenging. Yes, our suburbs did indeed support Carl Paladino over Andrew Cuomo only one short year or so ago. But if what drove the change of 2011 is economic anxiety, and the unapologetic party of government won against the part of Big Oil, climate-science denial, anti-culture, anti-library, and inside-the-box budgeting, then maybe the fear of watching our Congressional delegation go all Gingrich on us should be set aside in favor of confidence that now is the time for some bold governing.

Our regional Christmas wish-list should be for Democrats to think and act as if they are Eisenhower, Rockefeller, or Nixon. Republican Eisenhower invested in transportation infrastructure of the oil age; Republicans and Democrats today need to invest in moving people with new, local, or at least continental energy, the greener the better. Republican Rockefeller elevated little colleges into a great university system; can we finally elevate our community college from a scatter-site set of subsidies for developers to a focused, centralized, downtown regional resource? Republican Nixon signed the Environmental Protection Agency into law; can our Democrats get serious, coordinated, and regional about accessing the funds of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative? Now that we have an entirely Democratic congressional delegation and a Democratic county executive, we should be able to refocus our community the way that the Regional Economic Council led by Satish Tripathi and Howard Zemsky refocused our government subsidy asks—on progressive ideas including smart growth, urban density, intellectual capital, workforce readiness, and environmental quality. Can we hope to go forward on this trajectory?

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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