Sunday, July 07, 2019

The Business Of Politics And The Politics Of Business

When Ned Lamont was elected Governor of Connecticut last November, many businessmen in the state breathed a sigh of relieve. Finally, one imagines them imagining, one of us is at the helm. Possibly Lamont was a businessman who understood a principle some trace back to Alexander Hamilton --- the business of politics is business.

Hamilton may have been right, because there is little doubt, now much more so than in Hamilton’s day, that political decisions affect business. In the larger polis, everything is wondrously knit together. The polis has its own political ecology. We know the fate of a butterfly is connected to available plants such as violets, milkweed, and asters; in the same way, businesses may be connected to modern politics in such a way as to be helpful -- or harmful. It is true the halls of state government swarm with business lobbyists striving to guide governors to a path of prosperity, but the will of a governor is moved by other political forces as well. Then too, no governor governs alone. There are political and party interests that must be satisfied at every corner.

A political editor and columnist recently lamented that Lamont was no Lowell Weicker. What the moment needs, he thought, is yet another berserker governor who would be able by force of will to push a toll tax through a politically timid, tax resistant legislature. Weicker had vetoed three non-income tax balanced budgets to achieve lift-off for his income tax. Similarly, Lamont hopes to flood the state treasury with new revenue from a new revenue source, tolls, much in the way Weicker flooded the 1991 state treasury with his new revenue source, a state income tax.

The columnist doubted Lamont had the will and the intestinal fortitude to buck a growing public resistance to tolls that has become much more formidable than progressives in the General Assembly had anticipated and, by force of will, push a tolling bill through the legislative sausage grinder. Sadly, the columnist decided, Lamont is no Weicker, the more important question having escaped rigorous thought: Why hadn’t past and recent massive tax increases succeeded in reducing deficits permanently?

Getting and spending, we know, are conjoined twins. We do not need a Milton Friedman or a John Maynard Keynes to tell us that the more you get, the more you spend; and the more you spend, the more you may spend imprudently. Years after Weicker had left politics, he appeared with a panel of businessmen at the Hartford Club. Asked to reflect on Connecticut’s then burgeoning debt, Weicker groaned, “Where did it all go?” But he knew where it went. Politicians  spent it and, by raising taxes, relieved themselves  of cutting governmental costs, always a painful ordeal for those who have pledged their political troth to state employee unions, Connecticut’s fourth branch of government.

How do we de-escalate costs has been the single most important question in politics for the last few decades. Weicker’s response to our current pending calamity – Connecticut, broke and caught in the bloody jaws of a malingering recession, is incapable of settling cost problems through more tax increases -- was woefully insufficient and wrong-headed.

The current crop of state and federal legislators, nearly all Democrats, have forgotten everything and learned nothing from recent history. Lamont has put into his toll basket all his political eggs, – including business costs involved in two measures dear to progressives, the minimum wage and family leave bills. One commentator believes that Lamont, new to state politics, might have used both bills to exert pressure on timid Democrats to support prospective tolls. The toll bill is still a work in progress and there is yet no indication that Connecticut’s toll plan will pass muster with a federal government that insists tolls must be used to reduce congestion; not all of the gantries proposed by Lamont serve this purpose.

And then, of course, there is Peter Schneider who accosted Lamont during a town hall meeting in Bethel on January 1.

My name is Peter Schneider. I’ve been a Bethel resident since 1958. I went to high school in this building… It’s important to know that I’ve got roots here. I’m leaving, after all these years in Bethel. I built my house here 34 years ago, and I can’t afford to stay. 2008 took the wind out of my sails. Everyone in construction took a beating in 2008, and we’ve been bouncing along the bottom ever since. Now, my question is this: people in the private sector have made adjustments. Instead of going out to eat, we eat at home... My business value went from 3 million to 180 thousand – that’s a drop off, and it never recovered. The reason I say this is because I’m not alone. My point is this: the private sector in Connecticut has made adjustments. We’ve been keeping our head above water. I think it’s time for you, Mr. Governor, to lay down the hammer, renegotiate the SEBAC [union contract] agreements and cut our spending. It’s not fair that you did not lay anybody off, so that we can keep our revenue and our expenses in check. Everything I heard today so far is roses and peaches and cream, very nice, but it involves spending more money than we already spend, and we're already one of the highest per capita debts in the country. Let’s get the job done. Let’s drop down the hammer and get the job done. (Raucous applause).”

The majority party in Connecticut is, of course, safe from such Town Hall assaults on past crippling policies. Schneider does not write commentary for any media outlets in Connecticut.

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