Vending machine government

By: - May 21, 2011 7:09 am

The problem with the move to expand tax check-offs

Several weeks ago, a column in this space raised the ire of some good guy advocates and at least one confused state Representative when it questioned the wisdom and sincerity of a House bill that will create a check-off box on the North Carolina income tax returns to support an eminently worthy cause. The bill in question would allow taxpayers to donate funds to the Cancer Prevention and Control Branch of the Division of Public Health of the state Department of Health and Human Services. At last check, the measure resides in the Senate Finance Committee after having passed the House by a wide margin.

The point of that column, of course, was not to question the worthiness of a fine public program that does great work or the specific objective of the legislation. In case there’s any doubt on anyone’s part, however, it should be noted clearly and right up front once again that the Cancer Prevention and Control Branch desperately needs more funding and no one can blame cancer prevention advocates for doing everything and anything they to raise money to support it – including working for a passage of a check-off bill.

The point of the column was, instead, to highlight a troubling trend in government that has been aggressively advanced by the market fundamentalist right in recent years – namely, the concept of what might be called “vending machine government.”

Vending machine government

In the view of many on the extreme right, the idea of broad-based, progressive taxes to support a wide array of vibrant public services and structures is an anathema. These ideologues simply hate the idea of a strong, well-funded government in which the people come together democratically and intentionally to a tackle society’s problems. Instead, they favor a weak, decentralized, privatized government modeled after our modern, consumerist private economy.

Rather than a system in which citizens hire and empower a corps of skilled and well-funded professionals to help them build a better society for all, the market fundamentalists want a government in which “consumers” “shop” for services and public institutions “compete” for “customers.”

Hence, the moves to privatize pre-K and K-12 education, jack up college and university tuition, add new toll roads, eliminate public financing of campaigns, defund public health care, and enact a new package of fee increases that will extract nearly $100 million annually from persons who “consume” things like services of the court system and driver’s education.

And yes – hence, the move to support things like more check-off boxes on state income tax returns whereby programs can battle other good public programs for public support.

In and of itself, the breast and cervical cancer check-off is a harmless addition for a good cause. Unfortunately, as the original column in this space presaged, conservatives do not intend that it will be by itself.

To the contrary, as a House committee’s action this week makes plain, the conservative majority in the General Assembly has big plans for income tax return check-off boxes. Under a bill passed by the House Government Committee this week, six new check-off boxes would be created – and not just any ordinary check-off boxes, either. Rather than specific, worthy programs like cancer prevention, these boxes would actually allow citizens to designate money for basic, overarching government functions—namely:

  • The Department of Cultural Resources,
  • The Department of Health and Human Services,
  • The Department of Public Instruction,
  • The Department of Public Safety,
  • The General Fund of the State of North Carolina, and
  • The University of North Carolina.

Got that? Under the conservative plan, several core functions of government would be transformed – at least partially – into competing charities.

Political games

According to bill sponsor and House Speaker Pro Tem, Rep. Dale Folwell, the proposal empowers people. Folwell told that “[the bill] pushes the power away from this town, and back down to the people who truly feel the urge that, if they’re not taxed enough, that they can donate more.”

But, of course, this is just a silly and disingenuous smokescreen. No one seriously believes that people are going to voluntarily support any of these departments or funds on anything approaching the scale that would truly make a difference in their respective funding streams. More to the point, no one who cares about any of these bedrock government institutions thinks it makes any sense to turn core public services into competing charities that would be forced to fight for donations.

Folwell may make noises about providing a means to fund government services, but he knows better.

As any first-year college economics student can tell you, a “market” only works effectively when consumers have information about the products or services they are buying – ideally complete information. Does anyone really think average North Carolinians have the time or energy or background necessary to allow them to make informed decisions about which core function of government deserves their support?

The answer is “no, of course not.” That’s why people elect a representative government that, in turn, employs professional experts – to gather the necessary information and make those informed decisions for them. Under the check-off/vending machine approach, core public services that ought to represent the best of human collective action become little different than deodorant brands or “American Idol” contestants – fodder for crass competitions in which contestants rise and fall with the whims of a distracted public’s fleeting attention. 

As with their support of the cancer check-off earlier this year, the new check-off scheme is in reality a cynical sleight of hand by legislative conservatives – a P.R. move aimed at softening the public image of GOP lawmakers at a time that they are decimating essential public structures and services and attempting to usher in a grim new world of dog-eat-dog conservatism.

Will the ploy work?

One gets the sense that these kinds of gimmicks are starting to wear thin. Recent polls suggest that the public is largely disgusted at the way conservative leaders have held thousands of unemployed workers hostage in a game of political football over a totally unrelated subject. Independent voters have been abandoning the GOP in large numbers over proposed cuts to education and other hard right policy positions.

Let’s hope that the public sniffs out the hypocrisy involved in this act as well. 

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.