THIS YEAR FEDERAL CANDIDATES and campaigns will spend more than $1 billion trying to convince Americans that if you send them to Washington, they will reduce spending, cut waste, solve America’s debt crisis, eliminate world hunger, and bring about world peace (maybe, just maybe, they will be able to bring about world peace this time).
The problem is that over the last 30 years our national debt has ballooned from a little over $1 trillion to nearly $16 trillion—an abject failure, if cutting spending and reducing debt were the goals. Why?
Here’s something to think about: Most of the candidates we ultimately send to Washington get their big-government training as officials at the local level. Take the 111th Congress: An informal American Majority review shows that roughly 70 percent of that session’s legislators were previously state or local officials. Dick Lugar of Indiana (God bless the end of his not-so-conservative political career) started out as a school board member. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma was once the mayor of Tulsa. The “Dynamic Duo” from California, otherwise known as Mesdames Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, were humble county commissioners (would that they were so again). The fact is that most of our congressional members who’ve helped create this vast government bureaucracy we cannot afford (yet are forced to pay for every day) got into that pernicious habit down-ballot.
Mind you, Big Government in America didn’t start at the local level. It is uniquely a creation of Washington. Government expansion and sharp spending increases began with federal overreach back in the early 20th century when those merry Progressives spurred the explosive growth of the bureaucratic state. Then federal officials, made less accountable by Progressive electoral reform, fostered a permissive culture of borrowing and spending that, decades later, is now driven from the bottom and the top of our government. This infectious behavior has had a host of consequences, including depressed job growth, lower incomes, and higher taxes for most Americans—ironically mostly “blue state” residents.
So we can rightfully chide Washington for growing, borrowing, and spending without regard to the burden doing so places on America’s future. But state and local governments who followed Washington’s lead are now in far worse shape. This should be a clarion call for conservatives to stimulate wholesale reform at the local level. That’s where most elected officials begin their careers, learning to spend like drunken sailors, craft deals with unions, and tax people into oblivion.
When government grows at a faster rate than the private sector, deficits increase. The government then raises taxes on the private sector to increase revenue. Increased revenue ultimately feeds the spending culture, which increases budgets and decreases private sector revenue—resulting in greater deficits and more borrowing. It’s a downward spiral that has hit extreme depths of fiscal misconduct at all levels of government.
State, local, and municipal spending has contributed to our national debt crisis and is destroying real opportunity for countless Americans—all for the sake of maintaining an elite class of wellpaid government workers with guaranteed employment and Cadillac benefits.
Let’s take a look at the numbers: the federal government employs roughly 2 million civilians, 85 percent of whom live and work within the Washington, D.C., area. Yet here are the often overlooked figures: A staggering 19 million Americans work for state, county, school district, and municipal governments across the country. Today, all these governments owe their employees a total of more than $4.4 trillion in pension and health care benefits alone that are presently unfunded. And as the Baby Boomers retire, these numbers are rising at an incredible rate.
California’s annual budget deficit this year is now more than $16 billion. That’s nearly double the projections of Governor Jerry Brown from just a few months ago. The state’s unfunded pension liability is now more than $500 billion and growing. Similarly, despite raising taxes on everything that moves (and most things that don’t), Illinois continues to buckle under massive deficits. Many of the tax increases in Illinois were promptly gobbled up by public employee pension liabilities. The state today is in worse fiscal shape than it was a year ago.
San Jose, California, is a poster child for how reckless fiscal management can lead to disaster. The city now allocates more than 75 percent of its discretionary spending to police and firefighters alone. In the last decade, the city’s yearly pension costs have increased by more than 330 percent, to more than half the city’s budget. By 2014, this single municipality will spend more than $400 million on pensions alone. Needless to say, it won’t be able to pay.
THE TROUBLING FACT is that hundreds, if not thousands, of other municipalities across the nation are in the exact same sinking boat. Progressives love to omit the local and state debt numbers from our national fiscal picture to drive the ridiculous idea that we don’t have a debt crisis, so government should be allowed to grow unchecked.
This “shadow debt” puts us right in line with that bastion and paragon of fiscal responsibility and economic growth, Italy. Both the U.S. and Italy presently have a 120 percent debttoGDP ratio when all debt is included. Greece is at 160 percent. With skyrocketing pension liabilities, rising budget deficits, and elected officials unwilling to force change, it won’t take us long to blow past Rome and start nipping at the heels of Athens.
“Unseen” debt and obligations at state and local levels, with California and Illinois leading the way, could ultimately be the termites that destroy the economic foundation of our country. And let’s not forget that President Obama has projected another $1 trillion (or more) shortfall for 2012 on the federal level. This kind of reckless spending, bloated government, and massive debt leads to higher taxes on everyone. Yes, despite what the progressives would like you to believe, everyone will pay for this bill, not just the so-called wealthy.
Many have speculated on the demise of the Tea Party, citing its lack of impact on the presidential primary. Here, too, the commentators miss the point, which is that, as a local movement, Tea Party organizations are primed and ready to have an even greater impact on our future. Instead of just helping change Washington over one or two cycles, they can fix the breakdown where it begins: at the bottom. And the results of transforming America from the bottom up, across a broad swath of states and locales? National, generational change—if the Tea Party will stay focused on those levels.
The crime scene is local. Make no mistake, our communities—not Washington, D.C.—are the real battlegrounds of our fiscal crisis, and the trenches where America’s future will be decided. They are also the stage on which massive national change can occur. If we can win there, in thousands of municipalities across the country, we can force the debate, and the nation itself, in the right direction.