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Difficult questions
Answers donít come easily to problems facing the nation, state, and city

WEíRE TEETERING on the brink of war with Iraq. Our national economy is two years into a brutal slump. Our state is trying to dig out of a $3 billion hole. And Boston, along with many other cities and towns in the Commonwealth, has implemented hiring freezes and may be forced to make significant layoffs to balance its budget ó especially as itís become clear that Governor Mitt Romneyís proposed budget calls for cuts to local aid. Itís a complex world out there. And yet, some would have you believe there are easy solutions to our problems.

Iraq. President George W. Bush and his hawkish cohorts ó from Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to media supplicants like Rush Limbaugh, Andrew Sullivan, Dennis Miller, and the Fox News Channel ó say that ridding the Middle Eastern country of its president is going to make us more secure. Too easily, they dismiss the very real possibility that war with Iraq and Saddam Husseinís ouster will dangerously destabilize the region.

Meanwhile, growing legions of antiwar protesters, led in the United States by the blithering ANSWER, say Bushís desire to depose Hussein is rooted exclusively in wanting to control Iraqís vast oil reserves. This facile analysis ignores the very real threat Hussein poses to peace. Chief United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix has found credible evidence that the Iraqi dictator possesses chemical and biological weapons. Itís simply irresponsible to ignore or dismiss this evidence.

The national economy. Bush believes the solution to the continued rise in unemployment and a bearish stock market is another massive tax cut coupled with a radical shift of government resources from the poor and middle class to the upper class. Among other things, Bushís main tax cut will hardly stimulate consumer spending: he wants to end the tax on dividends, which will benefit only the very wealthy who earn dividend income ó not the middle class, which holds most of its dividend investments in 401(k), 403(b), and pension plans. Meanwhile, he proposes changes to Great Society programs, such as Medicaid and Social Security, that will ultimately result in fewer benefits. He and his economic advisers have ignored the extraordinary appeal by 10 Nobel laureates in economics (as well as Federal Reserve Board chair Alan Greenspan), whoíve all lambasted his plan as one that will ensure chronic budget deficits that will ultimately limit the ability of future administrations to "finance Social Security and Medicare benefits as well as investments in schools, health, infrastructure, and basic research."

Meanwhile, others say whatís needed are expanded government benefits. As if imposing further financial burdens on a federal government that canít meet its current obligations without running massive deficits is the solution to a nationwide economic slump.

The state budget. Romney says he can make our $3 billion deficit disappear by restructuring state government ó as if cuts to local aid, housing programs, and health-and-human-service programs arenít going to compromise governmentís core mission: to educate children, to keep the public safe, and to care for those who cannot care for themselves (see "Who Will Suffer the Most?", page one). That said, the permanent solution to our problems, as some say, does not lie in yet another tax hike. And opposition to legalizing casino gambling, at this point, simply isnít realistic ó not when it could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year, much more than Romneyís proposed extortion plan of asking neighboring states that do allow such gambling to pay Massachusetts $75 million annually to keep casino gambling illegal. If you donít understand that the state has some tough choices to make in the coming months, you donít understand the fiscal crisis weíre in.

Bostonís budget. Mayor Tom Menino likes to blame the cityís current fiscal crisis, in part, on unfunded mandates in education and public safety placed on cities by the state and federal governments, even as the state and federal governments restrict city officials from imposing the taxes and fees needed to raise money. Itís true that unfunded mandates are the bane of municipal officials. But the fact remains that the city paid scant attention to the need to build up reserve funds that would help ease the pain of a fiscal emergency, such as the one weíre in now.

Even so, the cityís crisis is real. Municipal-employee unions, which insist on negotiating for raises even as the city has instituted a hiring freeze, are living in a fantasy world.

Extremes on either end of the political spectrum donít cut it today. Weíre living in a world of gray. Progressive/conservative, antiwar/pro-war, tax cut/tax hike ó we arenít going to find any answers in these dichotomies.

We are, whether we like it or not, at war ó or close to it. And the end of the tech boom, like it or not, dried up the record tax revenues collected by the state and federal governments. Itís a new world. We donít know where to find answers to these problems. What we do know is that the answers do not lie in calls for war against Saddam Hussein or chants in the street of "Hell no, we wonít go!" Nor do the answers lie in tax cuts for the wealthy ó or calls for higher taxes.

We are all caught up in a massive change of circumstances that cuts across international, national, regional, and local lines. Just because our leaders wonít lead ó or, in some instances, are leading in the wrong direction ó doesnít mean we should stick our heads in the sand. We need to keep asking questions, keep educating ourselves ó and perhaps most important, keep our eyes on what our political leaders are doing and let them know what we think about their proposed solutions to these problems. After all, they work for us.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters[a]

Issue Date: March 6 - 13, 2003
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