All across America, years of overspending at the federal, state and local levels of government have come to an abrupt end and the chickens have come home to roost. When the money dries up, actions that were once unthinkable become not only thinkable but also unavoidable. Newark cannot buy toilet paper any more. Crime-ridden Oakland, California is laying off police. When the debt crisis hit New Zealand in the late 1980’s, the government had to put advertising signs on the side of police cars in order to pay for their gas. My question is, who is to blame?
Which is a very different question from who will be blamed. It is a dismal fact based on historical evidence that the politician closest to the cuts will be blamed the most. For instance, when Canada had her debt crisis in the mid-nineties, it was the provinces that were blamed for draconian health care cuts – hospital closures and line-ups for cancer treatment, even though the provinces right across the country cut health care services more or less simultaneously and the only common denominator was the equally draconian cuts in health care transfer payments from the federal government to the provinces. But because it was the provincial health minister who actually got his hands dirty by laying off the nurses, the people blamed Mike Harris more than Paul Martin. But let’s take this analysis one step deeper; was it really Paul Martin’s fault that he was the finance minister when the music stopped?
I say, no. The debt bomb in Ottawa had been ticking for several decades before Paul Martin wrote his first budget. It first started with Lester B Pearson’s progressivism amplified by his successor, the Fabian socialist, Pierre Trudeau. That the deficit was not that high throughout most of their reign was due to the artificially low interest rates at the time that bred inflation in the late 70’s. When the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board Paul Volker raised interest rates in the late 70’s to combat this inflation, and the Bank of Canada was forced to follow suit, the money printing option was gone. The result was a decade and a half of sky-high federal deficits that Pierre Trudeau didn’t care to address and Brian Mulroney was too afraid to address. The political cipher, Kim Campbell, was too clueless and short-lived to share much of the blame. My answer, then, is that blame for the health care cuts of the 1990’s rests on Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Lester Pearson - in that order. My principle is to assign blame to those who voluntarily ran up the tab, not to those who got stuck with it when the waiter finally showed up.
Getting back to the American scene, whose to blame for the cost cutting in Trenton, NJ today, current governor Chris Christie, or his immediate predecessor, Jon Corzine? By the above reasoning, Democrat Jon Corzine, the Goldman Sachs alumni who tried to earn his blue-collar street cred by siding with the New Jersey public service unions on every contract negotiation that occurred during his tenure. Corzine recklessly ran up the tab, and not only with the unions - who he was beholden to and who demanded an ever increasing payment for their continued support. Corzine also resorted to other tricks of big-government politicans: pork barrel politics and buying off special interest groups with favours. Thanks to him, New Jersey is broke today. It is not Christie’s fault that the party is over and the hangover has begun. Governor Christie is just the clean-up crew.
I remember reading an alarmist article in the National Review in the late 1990’s, telling readers that just because the federal government was running balanced budgets (which it was back then), that there was a growing debt bomb at state levels with governor after governor spending to excess. Well, the debt bomb just went off. It just took a dozen years. And lets not just blame Democrats. There are plenty of Republican governors and state legislators who contributed to this problem: you know the type, the moderate RINO squishes, who think the path to electoral success is to be Democrat-lite, the kind of Republicans David Frum holds up to be harbingers of a Republican comeback.