Friday, November 23, 2018

The Cynic In The Diner

Q: I have lots of questions.

A: I’m sure I do not have lots of answers.

Q: I’ll ask the questions anyway.

A: You always were persistent, an indispensable virtue among good reporters.

Q: You were a reporter once, right?.

A: No, a columnist. Reporters dig up the truffles, columnists make use of them in their pâtés.

Q: When did you start publishing Connecticut Commentary?

A: About 2004, thirteen years after then Governor Lowell Weicker destroyed the character of Connecticut, once a magnet for companies seeking to escape the withering hand of autocratic government, by instituting his ill-advised income tax.

Q: And you were writing columns back then as well.

A: Before then. I’ve been fulminating for more than 35 years. The income tax, a new revenue stream saved the Democrat dominated General Assembly the necessity of pruning back spending over the long term. It resulted in a catastrophic, uninterrupted increase in spending, the efficient cause of the recurring budget deficits from which we suffer today. State employee labor costs in Connecticut are punishing. Instate businesses have their eyes on the exit signs, and out-of-state businesses now treat Connecticut as if it had the pox.

Q:  As a cynic, a follower of Antisthenes, you believe there is no hope.

A: Well, not exactly. A political cynic is someone who believes that the path to Hell is strewn with false hopes. If your expenditures exceed your revenue, you are in the condition of Mr. Micawber, a Charles Dickens character in David Copperfield: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery." Just now, Connecticut’s Governor Elect, Ned Lamont, is looking for a new revenue stream, and he appears to have found one in prospective tolls. We are told he met with Weicker to query how Weicker had pushed the income tax through a resistant General Assembly.

Q: And, having written for Connecticut papers for 40 years, well before Weicker became governor, you know how that happened.

A: Yes. Weicker pushed and shoved and offered tidbits to this or that politician, the usual polite bribery, then he  vetoed three non-income tax balanced budgets presented to him by the General Assembly. The New York Times was obliged to cover the event on August 2, 1991. “Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. ,” the Times wrote,  “vetoed a budget for the third time today, but in a scornful veto message he offered legislators no clear options except to override it or give up their opposition to an income tax. 'The whole Coalition III is a gimmick,'  he [Weicker] said, referring to the name given to the third budget without an income tax passed by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats. 'Actually, gimmick is the kind word for what is the shame and scandal of our generation.'"

But of course – it was a shame and scandal to oppose the suicidal dictate of a puffed up neo-Republican. Prophetically, the Times noted, “Connecticut accumulated a $937 million deficit in the last fiscal year as spending continued to increase while the recession ate away at sales-tax and corporate-profits tax revenues. What has been clear for months is that a billion dollars in new and replacement revenues had to be found, in any budget, to avoid a similar deficit this fiscal year.”

Spending then and now is the culprit. And Weicker knew this. Asked if he intended to propose an income tax during his campaign as an Independent, Weicker forswore the tax. Implementing tax increases during a recession, he said, would be “like pouring gas on a fire.” It was clear that a majority in the state did not want an income tax. Bill Cibes, whom Weicker taped to head his Office of Policy Management, had run for governor on an income tax platform and had been soundly defeated. A majority of legislators did not want an income tax and voted for a non-income tax budget three months in a row. The income tax, when passed, was the occasion of the largest anti-tax rally in the nation.

Weicker got his tax – and we are left sifting the ruins. Following the third veto, Weicker appealed to the better natures of resistant politicians: With an income tax, they would not have to struggle with recurring budget deficits year after year. This prediction has fallen far short of expectations. The last pre-income tax budget under Governor Bill O’Neill cost taxpayers $7.5 billion. The cost of government four governors later tripled, and the budget deficit doubled, not an unmitigated success.

I recall, several years ago, attending a conference at which Weicker was present as a panelist. Someone mentioned the acceleration of spending and the appearance of recurring deficits, at which Weicker’s drooped like a water deprived flower, and he wondered aloud, “Where did it all go?” Immediately after the imposition of the tax, the state had realized budget surpluses for a bit. A businessman sitting next to me, not yet a cynic, mumbled, not quite to himself, “They spent it all, you ninny.” That man today is likely a cynic. Or perhaps his business has moved out of state, re-watering his parched hopes. History is not a mystery. We know what has happened in Connecticut and are fully aware of the consequences of stupid decisions. The only question is: Are we insane in Einstein’s sense?

Q: Incidentally, it was not Einstein who said “insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.” The quote first appeared in 1981 in a Narcotics Anonymous document warning its members that continuing to use narcotic drugs and expecting to be able to stop on their own was mad folly.

A: Even more appropriate. Narcissistic behavior is a narcotic. Taken to an extreme, solipsism may be fatal to everyone but the solipsist.

Q: I think you would agree that Lamont is not a solipsist.

A: Not yet. Power corrupts, they say. And Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.” Some men adapt to the usufructs of power positions more quickly than others. The founders of the Republic may have thought they had created a system of government that would allow for a health turnover in legislators. Connecticut’s own Roger Sherman, the only early forefather who signed all four foundational documents – the Continental Association , the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution -- held at least four different political positions before he died: Justice of the Superior Court of Connecticut from 1766 to 1789, treasurer of Yale College, professor of religion for many years, Mayor of New Haven from 1784 until his death in 1793. U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro leapt from college directly into politics and has clung to her position as “U.S. Rep. for life” since 1991 -- 27 years. And she is the rule, not the exception. Most members of Connecticut’s U.S. Congressional Delegation are well on their way to life sinecures. 

Q: I sense a turn in the discussion towards term limits.

A:  I can oblige. Progressive politicians like DeLauro want change in everything but their own careers. I would hazard a guess that many of DeLauro’s constituents have suffered a number of changes in their work environments since they were first employed. It took 20 years and a crane to lift Attorney General Dick Blumenthal into the U.S. Senate. Unfortunately, he has carried none of his virtues and all of his bad habits into the new office with him.

Q: So, from your point of view, the election of Ned Lamont as governor seems like déjà vu all over again?

A: Republicans in the General Assembly might be forgiven for viewing it as a giant step backwards. They had made impressive gains in both houses of the General Assembly. The Senate had been tied 18-18, and Republicans were only a few seat from a tie in the House. This election returns the General Assembly back to Malloy’s ascendancy. Democrats now command all the Constitutional offices, the entire U.S. Congressional Delegation and the governor’s office, as complete a sweep as any hegemonic Democrat could desire.

Q: And the future is bleak?

A: If it resembles the past, yup.

Q: Will it?

A: I’ve been asked that very question numberless times by disappointed Republicans, joyous Democrats and bewildered non-affiliateds.

Q: And the answer is?

A: Possibly the only politician in the state who can save Connecticut from a fate worse than déjà vu  all over again is Lamont, and he will have to buck his own party to do it. So, the answer to your question is the usual journalistic one: We’ll see.

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