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Lloyd's Op-Eds

The Weekender - August 18

Tea Party to Chatham: Drop Dead

“Ford to New York: Drop Dead.” That Oct. 30, 1975 headline in the New York Daily News was thrust into focus again, twice, in recent days. Once was with the passing of Gov. Hugh Carey, widely credited with saving New York City from financial death after Congress and unelected President Gerald Ford rejected all pleas from New York state and city officials to prevent the bankruptcy of the Big Apple during its darkest days. The federal government has bailed out numerous auto manufacturers, banks, insurance companies and other “indispensable” private entities over the years. Presumably, the financial and cultural capital of the world was not deemed indispensable, although President Ford made clear that certain functions in New York City essential to the United States would be maintained. These did not include public education for New York City’s children.

Even before Governor Carey’s death, that sardonic Daily News headline was brought to mind by the failure of Congress to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, prior to the legislators’ summer recess. The House, currently controlled by Republicans, who are ideologically dominated by the Tea Party these days, would not expend $16 million annually to subsidize airports in small and rural markets, like the one which encompasses Chatham. Specifically, the House targeted airports in Jamestown, New York; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and 11 other small markets.

Leave aside the fact that this failure to reauthorize the FAA cost the United States roughly $30 million daily in uncollected fees (which some airlines continued to charge their passengers), totaling some $400 million by the time a temporary compromise was struck on Aug. 5. We might be able to forgive that seemingly “penny wise, pound foolish” conduct in the name of principle and the promise of greater savings to debt-strapped America if this principle were to be broadly enforced in the future.
So let’s look at this position of principle espoused by the Tea Party. It is simply and simplistically that there should be no subsidy to rural airports. Rural customers must bear the full (or much greater) cost of providing these services, which are ubiquitous in big markets because costs are spread among vastly larger populations. The logical extension of this Tea Party position is that rural Americans must either be deprived of or pay much higher prices, not only for air travel but for wire line telephone service, broadband access, cell phone and postal services and even for roads. A mile of Route 203 or County Road 9, leading to my home in Chatham, get a tiny fraction of the vehicular traffic that Broadway, 66th Street and Columbus Avenue get. These are the roads leading to my other home in Manhattan.

The year, 2011, marks the crossing of an important line, where radical anti-government and libertarian philosophy adopted by the Tea Party started to alter the way we actually live. One pillar of this philosophy is the reflexive rejection of government subsidies to most institutions and societal goals, excepting national defense and some police functions. Most other services should be privatized and made to pay for themselves.
The other pillar of Tea Party philosophy is the absolute refusal to raise taxes or enact any new tax. In the New World, supported by these twin pillars (brave or cowardly, depending upon where you sit), a community gets a post office and 44-cent first class postage if it has sufficient traffic and that is what it costs to transport mail to and from there. If not, the post office is gone and/or the price of that one ounce letter becomes say $4.40.

The Constitution’s grant in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 7 to the federal government of the right to establish “Post Offices” and “Post Roads” does not require that they actually be established anywhere and certainly not in sparsely populated places like the village of Chatham, the town of Ghent or the unincorporated hamlet of Spencertown. Unthinkable, you say, that such bedrock facilities would disappear. Just watch and see that thousands of small-town post offices have already been targeted for closure. The bank which occupies Chatham’s former train station should serve as constant reminder that services considered basic can be eliminated if they can’t be “cost justified.”

The “no new or increased tax” pillar of Tea Party philosophy is typified and most consistently trumpeted by Tea Party hero Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform (at Ronald Reagan’s behest), who promotes the goal of reducing government “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” The easiest way to achieve this goal is to deprive government of tax revenues. That process has started to occur and most dramatically in the debt reduction legislation enacted earlier this summer. That law was devoid of revenue enhancement. If we continue down this path with no increase in tax rates or authority and no or diminished subsidies, private enterprise and free market forces will provide roads, postal service, phones and cable and Internet access to city dwellers, but in Chatham, well, we might as well drop dead.

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