budget-cutting in the dirty jerz

I am not a very good resident of my state. I vote, but my votes in local elections are fairly ill-informed; I do not go to West Windsor town meetings, I do not read much state or local news except from the headlines in the boxes at the train station. But I do tithe $130 a month to New Jersey Transit for the privilege of commuting from Princeton Junction to Trention — $130, up from $108, because New Jersey Transit has been forced to raise its rates. I am also informed that the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district will have to cut 50 teachers to compensate for losses in state aid.

People are outraged by these things — I’m not happy myself — but what else are we supposed to do? I don’t ask this rhetorically — I use the public transport system now, and I may be using the public education system in a few years, and although I can afford the fare hikes and possibly tutors or other supplementary education, not everyone can. These measures will probably lead to more clogged roads, more pollution from old used cars, and lower teaching quality in the schools (since WW-P will eliminate teachers but not, presumably, students). No one seems to think that New Jersey isn’t in financial trouble, and no one likes the economies that Christie is proposing — but no one is suggesting alternatives. I could suggest one, based on a very cursory perusal of the Governor’s website: Forget controlling property tax increases, and funnel that money into schools and transport. However, that sounds a lot better when you’re thinking about McMansions than it does when you’re thinking about Hightstown storefronts, and presumably it discourages home ownership among new and/or lower-income buyers — not to mention that the savings may not be enough; I have no idea.

Anyway, the situation reminds me of a conversation I once had, more or less unwillingly, in the cafe at the Princeton Public Library. I was in line for my coffee behind an older woman, and there was a petition up for signatures protesting the proposed increase in parking fees for downtown Princeton. This woman was very incensed about it, and (this is the only reason why it became a conversation) turned around and asked me “Why would they do this?” And I said what I thought was obvious: “Maybe they need the money.” And she got a very thoughtful look on her face and said, “I never thought of that.”

The above actually happened. I don’t know how representative this woman is of the average political thinker in New Jersey, but I certainly have not detected much more sophistication in most people’s reactions to these problems — not that I’ve been looking very hard, as I am not a very good resident of my state. The next level of sophistication is achieved by a Facebook commenter on the photo that inspired this post: “Why not just tax the super-wealthy?” This is better inasmuch as it recognizes that money actually has to come from somewhere, and I suspect it’s more representative of a certain common vein of liberal thought (I do not use “liberal” as a pejorative; I voted to re-elect Corzine, who was also wildly unpopular for his attempts at fiscal discipline), but it’s fundamentally a form of magical thinking. First of all, it’s not clear to me that the super-wealthy have enough super-wealth to solve all or any, of the state’s problems. Second, the super-wealthy are, almost by hypothesis, free agents with a considerable amount of wherewithal, who pay attention to their finances — if their home state is about to tax them into the ground, they’ll move. Third, taxation is a disincentive toward earning. That doesn’t mean there should be no taxes, or that there should be no progressive taxation — I think a progressive tax schedule is just and useful. But when there’s a crunch, everyone has to contribute. Demanding that the rich solve our problems by themselves is a basically infantile approach to life. Adults pitch in and take responsibility.

Anyway, I suppose the above are the first mumbled banalities of a grouchy middle-aged Republican in chrysalis, and I absolutely don’t mean them as the final word on the topic, or as an excuse for governmental enormities. But I am not a very good resident of my state, and to me, these economies do not seem like an enormity. If someone would bother trying to convince me that the economy of New Jersey is not badly troubled, or that there is an alternative source of funds that would ease the burden on the people who can barely afford NJT, I’d be listening. But if this alternative account exists, I have not heard it.

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