Sunday, July 18, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Telling the truth at risk of great bodily harm ...
I no longer feel sorry for good and decent politicians who honestly believe that they must “shade the truth” or, in the vernacular, tell a lie when asked by their constituents whether they, like those who run against them, will promise the voters something for nothing.
There is no question that the voters are in the kind of mood today that demands politicians adhere to the “no new tax” pledge that seems to be the litmus test for any elected office. Voters, for good reason after years of seeing bloated government and ever-decreasing services, have resorted to a black-and-white process when it comes to their votes.
If you favor increasing taxes, you are out. If you pledge to hold the line or even reduce them, you are almost a shoo-in — practically with no other experience or prior qualifications needed.
And although I agree that no good government comes from attitudes like those I have described, I still don’t feel sorry for politicians who won’t come clean. They owe it to the voters to tell them the truth, even if it means defeat at the polls and results in really bad government for the people. I say this because I have taken a much greater risk to tell the truth to a voter. I have risked bodily harm — and I survived. So, if I can tell the truth, so should any politician who wants my vote.
I will explain. The question was a simple one. It was asked by my friend and rolfer, Steve. He wanted to know what I thought of his belief that the only thing we needed to do was lower taxes on business and individuals in Nevada so that California businesses would flock to the Silver State, creating jobs and adding to the economic base.
What’s a rolfer? Good question. First, as the body gets older and more and more out of whack, people such as Steve perform small miracles that are both beneficial and extremely painful. They have hands that know every spot on the body and which of them can receive more pain than previously thought possible. If you have heard of deep tissue massage, well, rolfing starts where deep tissue ends. Yes, it is painful.
And because of that, any person who offers his body up to the skilled hands and menacing strength of the rolfer does so with a great deal of trust that pain thresholds won’t be violated and bones won’t be broken.
So, consider the pressure I was under when Steve asked me, while I lay vulnerable to his every whim, what I thought of that idea. I was not unmindful of the great degree of anger that seems to be the hallmark of Tea Party affairs and town-hall meetings these days. If you look at a zealot the wrong way or answer a question in a way that the person disagrees with you (forget whether it is factually correct), then you are subject to some kind of violent reaction or, at the very least, a written response full of four-letter words, questions about your ancestry and other forms of attack that make it smarter and far more pleasant just to stay out of the fray.
Nevertheless, believing that Steve was not one of those people more interested in being right — even when wrong — I ventured an answer. If I had guessed wrong about him, I could have paid dearly and painfully.
I told my friend that what he had been hearing and listening to was just plain wrong. For sure, raising taxes in the middle of a recession is not the best idea. But if his plan to attract California businesses to Nevada was to offer lower taxes, he was way off base.
If you look at the relative tax burdens on Californians and Nevadans, our neighbors to the west are at the top of the Western states in terms of dollars captured per capita. Nevada is at or near the bottom. Those people and businesses who are driven solely by the bottom line have already moved to our state. In fact, it isn’t hard to recognize them. They are the folks who say no to every opportunity to invest in a better future for our state. No surprise, though. We invited people to move to Nevada who don’t want to pay taxes so we should never be surprised when they are consistent at the polls and vote not to raise taxes.
We could raise taxes significantly, and we would still be far better off taxwise than our California neighbors.
So why don’t people move here the way we think they should? If it isn’t about paying lower taxes, what is it that will motivate businesses to move here and pay higher wages, thus making the economy that much better?
How about schools? How about roads, parks, recreation, transportation, culture and every other measure of “quality of life”? Those are the issues that matter to most people. Ask most businesspeople what is the single biggest reason they lost a candidate they wanted to hire for a job and you will hear it’s because the candidate wasn’t comfortable with the education opportunities for his children. Or the health care. Or the parks. Or some other quality of life consideration that we have failed to invest in over the years.
That’s what I told Steve was the reason why people don’t move to this state. Sure, when the economy is buzzing, we get plenty of people looking for jobs. But, when things are slow like they are now, it takes a lot more to get a family to commit to this state.
Now here’s the rub. We won’t have a good education system, great transportation, enviable recreational facilities, pleasurable parks and other kinds of citizen services that make a city so livable until we decide we are going to make the investments necessary to make them happen.
Sure, we can find some money by making sure government costs are kept under control, but we will never move up the ladder of “quality of life” issues until we make the commitment to invest. And we can do that and still be tax-burden competitive with neighboring Western states.
That’s what I told Steve and, in doing so, I rocked the world he was living in because he was convinced that what he read on the Internet and heard on the cable “news” shows were factual — just like so many other Americans who choose to believe everything they read and hear from those questionable sources.
That was the moment when it could all have gone wrong. I have seen the seething anger of the crowds of people who think they know what they are talking about when they really don’t. I have seen and felt firsthand their anger. With very little effort, Steve could have extracted a great deal of pain and imposed a major hurt on my body.
To his credit and my great surprise, that is not what happened. Steve acted in a most civil manner. He thanked me for giving him another side of the story and a perspective that he never considered. And, in the end, he agreed that lower taxes alone were not the proper reason for quality companies to move to town. He even admitted that he would be willing to have his own taxes raised as long as such increases were perceptively fair.
When I got off the rolfing table, my back didn’t hurt. My faith in human beings had been temporarily restored as was my belief that politics could, indeed, be discussed in a rational manner — even between people who disagreed with one another.
I took a great risk and argued with someone who was angry, hurt and frustrated with his government and all who defended it. It worked out well.
From that I learned politicians who have only a seat to lose — no bodily injury at risk — can and should be equally candid with the voters. All they need are voters willing to listen.
Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.