by Will Beaman
The most exhausting thing about the Charter School debate for everyone involved is the certainty that there will be another similar conflict soon, regardless of the outcome of Question 2. After November 8, there will still be a budget crisis in Massachusetts and various public services will be identified as points of inefficiency requiring tough cuts and reforms. And if we limit our focus to state politics and budgeting, this isn’t completely false. Massachusetts doesn’t have a lot of spending flexibility. But that’s not the whole story.
With the weak recovery the American economy has experienced post-2008, austerity has been a difficult medicine to resist for even the most well-meaning Democrats. And the apparent progressive orientation of the party’s rank and file (as evidenced by the close primary contest between “the Progressive” and “the Progressive Who Likes to Get Stuff Done”) has made little difference at the state level. If anything, it just keeps getting worse. To really explain this, we have to look at the unique structural disadvantages that subnational governments in fiscal policy.
Unlike the federal government, state governments cannot deficit spend. They are required by law to keep a balanced budget, so the fiscal limitations directly imposed on them by the great recession make austerity unavoidable. Historically, programs targeting women and minorities have been kicked down to the state level, while programs that disproportionately serve white males like Social Security and Medicare exist more securely at the federal level. State-level programs have tended to treat recipients as criminals and looters, often subjecting them to surveillance and demanding they demonstrate their work ethic and desire to be a productive member of society in all different ways.
This structural defect in how public goods are financed at the state level is critical for understanding the political stakes in privatization debates. The Charter School debates, for instance, happen over the backdrop of the recession-induced revenue crisis facing state governments. Rarely is it mentioned in these discussions that tax revenue as a proportion of GDP is the lowest it has been in 60 years. When the problem is framed so narrowly, it allows for a simplistic narrative of tough politicians rolling up their sleeves and making painful, responsible cuts against the resistance of stubborn public sector unions.
The obvious solution, advocating for these programs to be federalized and financed by an entity that can debt-finance its growth during a recession, is not on the table. Instead, we are offered more budget cuts and privatization schemes. Federalizing and protecting public goods like education will never be on the table unless a political coalition demands it. But with every privatization scheme that “disrupts” public sector unions Silicon-Valley style, the social base for our potential coalition is undermined. And with public sector workers insecure and disorganized, space opens up for even more cuts and the cycle continues.
Democrats, particularly the white cosmopolitan variety, have a tendency to neatly separate policy areas into “issues” that are addressed one at a time, and usually through a transactional “12-dimensional chess” game of backdeals and maneuvers. But as long as state-level privatization battles remain disconnected from each other and from national politics, there will be no end to the budget crises and cuts.
The connections we make right here in Massachusetts between local politicians and civil society will be critical, and young progressive Democrats should allow movements and campaigns to exist and flourish outside of the deal-making framework of party politics. That would be a Democratic Party that lives up to its name.