Monday, November 12, 2007

What the Grand Canyon and Meteor Crater Tell Us About Contemporary Politics

As you travel along Interstate 40 through Northern Arizona, past the remnants of the fabled Route 66, you'll encounter two highway exits that lead to breathtaking examples of the destructive power of geological and astronomical forces. One, of course, is the Grand Canyon, some seventy or so miles north of Flagstaff. The other, just a short drive from Winslow, is Meteor Crater, the sort of commercialized venture ("Experience the Impact!") that makes one grateful that the National Park Service managed to keep most of America's premier natural treasures out of the hands of business school graduates.

Anyone who has seen both will tell you that the Grand Canyon is by far the more spectacular. There is a reason that Arizona's license plates don't refer to it as the Meteor Crater State. The crater, on the other hand, is more conveniently located, just off the highway, and attracts thousands of visitors each year despite the fact that it is, when you think about it, just a big hole in the ground.

We are fortunate that the cable news industry wasn't around when each of these natural phenomena was getting started. Because you know which one would have received the 24/7 O.J.-just-ran-a-stop-sign coverage. The gradual erosion of the canyon would, to say the least, make for bad television. The meteor, on the other hand, would merit its own logo and theme music. TERROR FROM THE SKIES! Panels of radio talk show hosts would be convened to consider the implications of this celestial attack on the president's job approval rating. The Neanderthal ancestor of Pat Robertson—who, oddly enough, would look and act just like Pat Robertson—would drop by to explain that the meteor was a warning from the almighty against Adam and Steve, or Wiccans in the Army, or insufficient tithing, or something equally preposterous.

Meanwhile, the Colorado River would slowly, methodically carve its gaping wound into the skin of the Earth, out of sight and out of mind.

This could be the story of global warming, but it isn't. We seem to have gotten lucky there, with enough good visuals (ice shelves collapsing and all that) to keep the TV folks at least partially engaged. If Tennessee ends up with beachfront property, it won't be because nobody was paying attention.

Instead, I'm thinking about the thirty years since Americans were successfully sold the lie that we could have it all without bothering to pay the tab. When California's Proposition 13, a measure designed to slash property taxes, was under consideration in 1978, opponents warned that it would cripple schools, libraries, parks, and other public services. Prop 13 author Howard Jarvis, the jowly front man for the state's big landlords, assured voters that shortfalls could be avoided simply by fat cutting and belt tightening, two empty metaphors that have persuaded generations of Americans to vote against their self-interest. As it often does, this non-argument carried the day in 1978, and Proposition 13 passed easily.

Then, with perhaps a bit of buyer's remorse, Californians sat back and waited apprehensively for the meteor to hit. When would the first library close, the first school district turn away children, the first prison empty its cells? The answer, of course, is that none of this happened, at least not at first. The local media, unable to locate a crater, pronounced the experiment a success, and the way was paved for Ronald Reagan to take the tax slashing campaign national.

Meanwhile, the slow erosion of California's public infrastructure commenced outside the glare of the media spotlight. Eventually, nearly all the greatest fears of Prop 13's foes were validated, but by then, the subject had changed at least a dozen or more times. Nevertheless, as predicted, libraries deteriorated, schools hired inferior teachers on emergency credentials to lecture in overcrowded, portable classrooms, and prisons reached and then exceeded capacity, sending violent felons back into dissolving neighborhoods. Even the highway system, the state's crown jewel for most of the twentieth century, soon grew inadequate the meet the demands of a growing population, and the two-hour commute was born.

Since all this happened in the fullness of time, it was easy for the tax cutters to disassociate Prop 13 from its increasingly dire consequences. Besides, millions of Golden Staters had by then become addicted to property tax rates that were ridiculously out of kilter with skyrocketing real estate values. Perhaps more than anything else, however, time itself was an ally of the tax cutters. Californians born after 1970 have never known any other life; to them, the Grand Canyon has always been there, an unchangeable part of the natural scenery. But even for their elders, the slow erosion blurred the link between cause and effect.

This is a problem. Even the worst, most short-sighted policies rarely result in a made-for-television smoldering crater. Instead, they produce the sort of unobservable erosion that, measured only on a daily basis, vindicates the snake oil salesmen and turns the truth tellers into just so many Chicken Littles. To be sure, there are always exceptions, Hurricane Katrina being the latest and most prominent. Nevertheless, the advantage will almost always be with the promise makers and not the promise keepers.

Just something to remember as we head into another election year.


Marc Goldstone - Arizona Tax Revolt said...

Dear Atom,

Very creative writing. I enjoyed reading it! I wish we could put your talents to good use PROMOTING the property tax rollback initiatives. As a retiree from California and the Chairman of the Arizona Tax Revolt I know that Prop 13 didn't hurt the state at all! Perhaps the best example of government claims tot he contrary was an editorial cartoon after one of the earthquakes showing a downed interstate highway overpass. Under it was a small crushed automobile with a license plate reading PROP 13. For the record local property taxes neither paid for the construction or maintenance of the freeway.

The reality is that Arizona Property taxes have been increasing by double digits while our personal income growth has been essentially flat. This can not be allowed to continue or the tide of foreclosures will be increased substantially. Foreclosures are bad because they hurt the people and families that make our state great.

Please visit our WEB site and learn about the initiatives which are inspired by but better than Prop 13.

The Man Who Was Never Born said...

Thanks for dropping by!

We'll probably end up agreeing to disagree on this, but I will take a look at your website.

While I thought--and still think--that Prop 13 was the wrong solution, I would not deny that there were problems in California in 1978. Property taxes were forcing some people with fixed incomes from their homes as property assessments kept up with Carter-era inflation. A young, overmatched governor (Jerry Brown) and a clueless legislature allowed budget surplusses to build without any thought of tax relief, at least until the eleventh hour.

But these problems, in my view, could have been solved without the sledgehammer that was Jarvis-Gann.

Marc Goldstone - Arizona Tax Revolt said...

Appreciate your willingness to keep an open mind. You will see that we are not Prop 13 which hurt all new buyers since much of their purchase price was inflation. We do not tax on inflation since the base year of 2003. In other words we or our children and grandchildren will be able to buy property without a tax penalty.

Government revenue will be controlled by Levies which have limits on increases as well, not by valuations which merely divide the tax burden (levy) between property owners.