We’re reeling from a series of jolts: $4.50-a-gallon gasoline, neighborhoods shaken by empty homes, rapidly rising food prices, growing unemployment and a war in its sixth year. We’re seeking solace, a sense that things will be okay, but there’s no consensus on solutions. It’s the American way. Greater wisdom can come from the partisan divide that passes for enlightened debate in Carson City and Washington, D.C. But it feels as though we’re lacking enlightenment and debate.
The Nevada Legislature met for a single day to close the state’s $275 million budget shortfall. Unless the economy improves, we’ll see a repeat in the coming months, with uglier cuts possibly on the way.
Republicans argue that state government is too big, that public employees earn more than their private-sector counterparts. They warn of major financial trouble as thousands of baby boomers retire from state and local government jobs. They speak the religion of the anti-tax movement, the orthodoxy that dictates that excessive taxation limits growth and violates the premise that we—not the government—have the right to our money.
Democrats argue that bigger government is needed to meet the demands of the hyper-growth of the past 20 years. They see poorly performing schools, mentally ill people warehoused in hospital emergency rooms, homeless people roaming the valley, malnourished men and women in need of a good meal. They say that good teachers cost money, so pay them well and they will teach our young.
Just maybe it’s possible that both are right. Could it be that too many Americans are squeezed by tax bills they can’t afford or simply violate their political philosophy? Could it be that government needs more money to help ease the pain of our poorest, our weakest, those who lack any safety net?
An enlightened debate can flesh out the flaws in our thinking, produce alternatives that we fail to see, generate policies that receive great support and help a broader mix of people. But in the hyper-partisan world of the Internet and cable news, where all too many of us head for our safe spaces with like-minded people, the give-and-take of true debate and compromise is viewed as a sell-out.
Suggest that Nevadans ought to at least discuss the possibility of adopting a corporate income tax paid by the largest employers or a personal income tax that would be paid by the state’s wealthiest people—and be prepared. Give air time to conservative political commentators who question whether taxpayers should provide seed money to young artists through something known as the Nevada Arts Council—and be prepared.
As kids, we draw up sides at an early age to play games. We like to say that there are two sides to every debate. In reality, the world is composed of gray, where subtlety and nuance rule. It’s a complex place where the big kid might be on my team today and yours tomorrow. If we’re to overcome the challenges we face, problems of our own making, we must learn to talk with others.