Friday, May 14, 2010

"No" News is Good News

I’m not sure why this non-event generated so much coverage and commentary in Colorado Spring, but since it has, let me make a few points.

The headline in the Gazette might lead casual readers to conclude that Uncle Sam placed a bucket of gold on the city’s doorstep and it was rudely rejected. That’s not the case. We simply decided not to send a form letter, at the urging of a left-leaning municipal league, asking U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn to support a bill that might, at some future date, trickle some federal “job creation” money into the city, if we grovel hard enough, if we are lucky and if we want to live with the strings that always come attached. The chance that this bill will pass, and that the money will ever flow to this city, and that it would do this city any lasting good, is so small and hypothetical that it barely deserves mention – much less the headline coverage it received.

The proposed bill hasn't passed. It may not pass. No money has been appropriated -- and any money that might be appropriated is borrowed money, which will have to be funded with more debt, or with printed money, which will eventually contribute to explosive inflation. One letter from this city to Doug Lamborn will have zero impact on whether the bill passes, how the proposed program will work, what levels of funding it will receive and whether this city would ever receive a dollar of it. It's all pie-in-the-sky, in short. You can't turn down something that doesn't exist. There are better uses of staff time than lobbying on behalf of The National League of Cities.

But even if such a program, and such a pot of gold, existed, there are plenty of reasons to be wary. Temporary infusions of federal money won't result in sustainable solutions, because the funding will eventually go away, leaving the city with an obligation it can't afford. Uncle Sam is a pusher, who gets the addict hooked on a habit he can't pay for.

FREX offers a good case in point. The commuter bus service began as a federal "demonstration" project -- which demonstrated that people will take a heavily-subsidized ride to work if it's offered to them. But when the federal funds ran out, the city was left to fund a service that couldn't operate on a sustainable basis and was draining precious resources from our core bus routes. FREX is today running on borrowed time -- time borrowed by cannibalizing and selling off the fleet. It was an expensive diversion from the city's real transit priorities, which began with an offer of federal "help." Sometimes, it's better to say "no" to such offers -- that's the lesson of FREX and a hundred other federal programs. If you don't want to become an addict, you have to turn your back on the pusher.

Virtually all federal money is earmarked for certain purposes, and comes with conditions attached. The city can't just take federal money designated for "job creation," for instance, and use it to water city parks or fill potholes or keep community centers open. Because of that lack of flexibility, the utility of such funds is limited. As in the case of FREX, if we hire additional city personnel based on a temporary funding stream, those jobs may have to go away when the funding stops. You gain no long-term benefit and assume obligations you can't sustain. This is what happened with Bill Clinton's Community Oriented Policing program, which I covered as a reporter. Some local police departments used the windfall to put a few more cops on the street (the 100,000 figure touted by Clinton was a lie, to put it bluntly), temporarily. But many of those cops were hitting the streets with pink slips a few years later, when the funding ran out.

The federal government has killed far more jobs than it ever “created.” It should focus its efforts on killing fewer, leaving job “creation” to the competitive sector. Every job “created” with a federal dollar is paid for by removing that dollar from our pockets, or from the private sector, where the real jobs are created. Maybe if we stop asking so much of Washington, it will stop taking so much from us. Until we as citizens (and cities) recognize that this is all just a shell game, in which government “gives” us something that it actually takes from us through its taxing power, we’ll never get a handle on runaway federal deficits and debt.

The best way to create real local jobs, and to stimulate the economy, is for Washington to stop carrying so much local money off to the U.S. Treasury, where it is re-distributed according to a political spoils system. Until Americans start saying “no thanks” to gifts from Washington, Washington has tacit permission to fund its gift-giving sprees at our expense.

This was one small (largely symbolic, admittedly) step in the right direction. It's a revealing sign of the times that politely saying "no" to Washington becomes news.

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