The Baby and the Bath Water

Lower taxes, more efficient government, and collectively living within our means are appropriate goals for the institutions we have created to do the public’s business.  I have worked with many elected and appointed officials over the past 30 years or so and I don’t recall anyone advocating for inefficiency, waste, and raising taxes for the fun of it.

The following excerpt from The Oregonian illustrates what can happen when our desire for low taxes is taken to extremes:

In early November, voters in Curry County overwhelmingly rejected a public-safety levy to fund the sheriff’s office, the Juvenile Department and the district attorney’s office.

As things stand, even if the county eliminates every service it provides from its general fund budget over the next two years — juvenile, patrol deputies, 911, the DA, commissioners, the treasurer’s office, the county clerk and others — the $1.3 million raised annually from property taxes may be insufficient to cover just the cost of running its jail.

Perhaps voters in Curry County will have a change of heart before doing away with their 911 center and other important services, but placing those services at risk strikes me as a threat both to current residents and future development prospects.  Who would choose to open a business, for example, in a place where there would be so little protection for the investment, not to mention the investor’s family?

The necessity of the service should not, in my opinion, serve as an excuse for poor performance or a license for unlimited spending.  Government should be under constant pressure to be effective and provide value to the public it serves.  Starving government services, however, ultimately works against effectiveness and reduces both their quantity and quality.  The most experienced, knowledgeable, and highest performing public employees are unlikely to view Curry County as the place to build their future.  I saw this principle at work when I started my career in a small town that offered relatively low compensation to its public employees.  Few people retired from city service as most moved on to better paying jobs in other places after a few years.

If the bath water represents the unwanted waste inherent in any organization, then the baby would be the essential services that the vast majority of people want and expect in civilized places.  The idea of complete self reliance may be attractive in the abstract, but it becomes much less so in the places where the requirement for it actually exists.  Curry County may be on the verge of eliminating waste in its local government services by simply eliminating them altogether.  Residents there may have cause to mourn the baby after briefly celebrating the disappearance of the bath water.

A Tale of Two Ducks

I hope everyone’s Thanksgiving holiday was as enjoyable as the one celebrated at our home this year.  We had 28 friends and relatives over for a gathering that involved all our children and grandchildren.  The feast followed the more-or-less traditional Turkey Bowl “touch football” game at West Albany on Thanksgiving morning; and I was the only casualty this year, with injuries that included bruised ribs and a sprained ankle.

Duck football was also a part of the weekend.  My sons traveled to Eugene to watch the Arizona game, while the rest of us gathered around the television set at home.  My oldest grandson, Roland, sat beside me throughout the game asking a continuous stream of questions and leaping around the room whenever the Ducks did something positive.  We learned from his parents that Roland got in some trouble at school recently for his involvement in a shoving match with another second grader wearing orange and black.  Roland’s teacher added that she felt compelled to inform her pupil that appending the words “Go Ducks” to all his papers was inappropriate in the school setting.  My wife observed wryly that the Fighting Duck T-shirt Roland wore on game day seemed to be fitting

I guess I have underestimated the intensity of the Ducks-Beavers rivalry.  A couple of weeks ago, I was doing some Saturday shopping at a local grocery store when I experienced an educational encounter with a fellow City employee.  I was dressed in my customary Oregon attire, which includes a yellow hat, yellow coat, green and yellow pants, and green Converse sneakers.  Most of the people around me were wearing orange and black, apparently in support of the Beavers’ memorable contest with Washington State.  As I walked down the supermarket aisle, I noticed someone who looked very much like City Clerk Betty Langwell coming toward me; but I also saw that this person was wearing an OSU sweatshirt.  Since Betty is a well-known Duck fan, I immediately assumed I was mistaken about her identity, until we made eye contact.  I know a look of fear when I see one, and I am sad to report that Betty looked genuinely panicked when she realized who was coming toward her.  The first words out of her mouth were, “My son bought it for me, but I’ll take it off before the game starts.”

I have observed before my belief that rationality is a finite commodity, not unlike oil, and there is evidence to support a conclusion of diminishing supply.  Why we place so much emphasis on a game played by young men routinely risking severe injury remains as much a mystery to me as why an old man would play any form of football on Thanksgiving Day or why a second grader would get into a fight with a friend over the color of his clothing or why our City Clerk would feel any amount of fear for wearing an Oregon State University sweatshirt.  Life is complex and mysterious.  Go Ducks!