John Stoehr: State letting crisis go to waste

September 3, 2017

I could dedicate these column inches to dissecting the ways in which legislators in Hartford hope to balance a budget almost two months overdue. Gov. Dannel Malloy and the Republicans want more in cuts. Most Democrats want more in revenue. It’s worth our time to quibble over the details, but we know very well that quibbling can sometimes lead to more of the same.

Instead, I’d like to take a step back and consider how the wisdom of a book published decades ago might apply to our current predicament. Called “The End of Ideology,” it was written by Daniel Bell, a thoughtful and honest man who proudly called himself a Marxian socialist, but who, as a thoughtful and honest man, found over time such an ideology no longer sufficed.

“A total ideology,” Bell wrote in 1960, “is an all-inclusive system of comprehensive reality, it is a set of beliefs, infused with passion, and seeks to transform the whole of a way of life. This commitment to ideology — the yearning for a ‘cause,’ or the satisfaction of deep moral feelings — is not necessarily the reflection of interests in the shape of ideas. Ideology, in this sense, and in the sense that we use it here, is a secular religion.”

Why wouldn’t it suffice? Because believing in something bigger than yourself is good in terms of religion, but it’s bad when it comes to running the government of a democratic republic. It’s one thing to dream and act on utopian ideals, Bell wrote, but a utopia must also “specify where one wants to go, how to get there, the costs of the enterprise, and some realization of, and justification for, the determination of who is to pay.”

In other words, utopia isn’t utopia.

It’s governing.

From what I can tell, I don’t see anyone in Connecticut, in private or public life, who has a realistic vision of where the state should be going, how we are going to get there, the cost of getting there and a reasonable justification of who’s going to pay. It’s accurate to say, all things equal, that we’ll witness a bonanza grief every two years from now into the foreseeable future.

Some lawmakers believe they can keep charging the state’s expenses to Fairfield County’s hedge fund accounts while others believe that cuts in services and cuts in taxes will result in a boom to float all boats. Neither side has a credible or pragmatic vision for how to strengthen the economy, reduce inequality and increase political liberty, because both schools of political thought are close to bankrupt if they are not bankrupt already.

Their utopias are exhausted.

We need a new utopia.

The General Assembly is plagued with amateurism, with part-time legislators misunderstanding the serious legal implications of the laws and policies they pass. I can’t help but wonder if the “uncertainty” many businesses feel stems from this fact. “Citizen politicians” are a great idea in principle. They’re supposed to be close to the people they serve. But it can also mean “citizen politicians” don’t know what they are doing, and don’t care to know, because going to Hartford isn’t a job.

That isn’t the only structural flaw. We don’t have county governments, so we have baked 169 layers of redundancy into our two-year fiscal budget cake thanks to having as many municipalities. Police, public schools, public services — these and more are paid for over and over when consolidation would save us all millions. We don’t do that, of course, because we love the Yankee principle of home rule that we inherited from our Puritan forebears. But even venerable traditions, if they are not re-examined when the times call for it, are obstacles to progress.

Connecticut is the wealthiest state in the union and the most divided. Compared to the other 49 states, the gap between our richest and the poorest is the widest. But income inequality isn’t to blame for political dysfunction. You can blame that on the division is between city and suburb — between municipalities with a little land and high property taxes and municipalities with a lot of land and low property taxes — and the policies, like equitable distribution of education funding, that exacerbate that division.

By the time Bell published “The End of Ideology,” he was confident common sense would win the day. Alas, he was wrong. The country has become more ideological than it was before 1960. But he was right about the need for common sense. Everyone has their own “secular religion.” That’s a given. But we must decide, using common sense as a community with a stake in every business and every public school, where we want to go, how to get there, how to pay for it and who’s going to pay.

You shouldn’t let a crisis go to waste.

But sadly, we are.

John Stoehr is a fellow of the Yale Journalism Initiative.