Ah, conventional wisdom. The great thing about it is that it provides an easy guide to how to behave without really having to think very hard about what you’re doing.
Endlessly reminding your kids to “eat your vegetables” is one example. “Don’t go out without putting on a coat; you’ll catch cold,” is another.
Those are harmless enough. But the risk of applying conventional wisdom to important public policy matters is our politicians’ well-developed and cowardly tendency to allow conventional wisdom to harden into dangerous dogma.
Take taxes, for example. The conventional wisdom is that voters don’t like increasing taxes. True enough. But the dogma in Lansing is that any politician who advocates any increase in any tax, even for a compellingly good purpose, is dead meat.
The dogma stems from 1983, when Jim Blanchard had just taken over as governor, the state was in a deep recession, and the state’s budget deficit was at an all-time high.
Blanchard proposed a temporary increase in the state income tax. Two Democratic state senators, Phil Mastin from Oakland County and David Serotkin from Macomb County, provided the necessary votes to adopt the tax hike. Both were recalled, resulting in a Republican domination of the state Senate that has lasted to this day.
The tax hike, incidentally, worked perfectly, wiped out the deficit, and then was soon rolled back to the original levels.
But the legend of that recall explains in large part why our political masters in Lansing continually shy away from considering any increase in state revenue for any purpose, good or bad.
“We couldn’t possibly do that,” legislators squeal, “we’d be killed in the next election.”
Sadly, that passes for leadership in Michigan today.
But are the voters really that mindless?
Two recent polls cast doubt on the total acceptance of the anti-tax dogma that has paralyzed so much of our political life.
A recent national New York Times/ CBS poll asked whether people would favor increasing the gasoline tax; 85 percent said no, 12 percent said yes. Big surprise! But when the question was framed to indicate an increased gas tax was a way to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, 55 percent agreed.
When asked whether they would support a gas tax that would help reduce global warming, 59 percent agreed.
Here’s a case where politicians’ terror at being smeared as a tax lover overcomes rational discourse. Our present national gas tax is 18.3 cents per gallon, unchanged since 1993.
But gas prices do affect consumer behavior. The slide in demand for big SUVs that has helped tear up our automobile industry was provoked by $3 gas.
Only when the price of gasoline reaches the $3.50- $4 range will large numbers of Americans demand cars that run on ethanol or offer hybrid power trains. When demand shifts like that, our auto industry will quickly offer all kinds of innovative ways to cut imports of foreign oil, reduce global warming and — aha! — sell more cars.
In Michigan, a recent survey by Public Sector Consultants makes the same point. Eighty- one percent of state residents would favor a tax increase to maintain or improve school programs, while 76 percent would favor a tax hike to fund early childhood education.
The conclusion? That the public “will support increased taxes” and that “Michigan residents believe that tax dollars spent on local schools represents a good buy and they reject the contention that lower taxes are more important than maintaining educational services and programs.”
The key point coming out of both surveys is that people do not reject higher taxes out of hand. They are willing to consider raising taxes if the purposes for them are worthwhile.
The politicians, for their part, are living in an ossified world of political dogma, scared of how their opponents might smear them if they ever displayed leadership and contemptuous of the intelligence of the public whose votes they covet.
With Michigan headed into an election in November, you can bet your bottom dollar the politicians of neither major party are going to talk about what long-term benefits increasing taxes might bring.
Sadly, all that does is postpone until next year a real discussion of how we are going to avoid becoming a terminally damaged state depending on a floundering and declining rust-belt economy. With each passing month without action, it seems less and less likely that we’ll find a plausible way of getting out of the jam we’re in.
For 40 years, Phil Powers columns appeared regularly in his Michigan newspapers, winning many state and national awards. An entrepreneur, former Regent of the University of Michigan, Vice Chair of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and founder of the Center For Michigan, he brings long- time experience in business, economics, politics, public policy and education.