In What's the matter with Kansas? Thomas Frank describes the economic disconnect between some voters and their own self-interests. That is to say, what's the matter with voters who vote for candidates with platforms that are hostile to the voter's well-being?
Why does labor vote for anti-union, low-wage, corporate-friendly candidates? Why do those on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder vote for candidates who pledge to cut education, health care and social services for those most in need — i.e them?
I got an e-mail yesterday that made me think: "Kansas? Hell, what's the matter with Monroe County?"
He ain't speaking my language, so I'll vote for him
The e-mail, from a member of the county's far-right wing and himself one of those most in need of the safety net's catch, described a purported presentation by Democratic candidate for Monroe County Sheriff Jim Kennedy. The presentation was given during a lunch session that the Republicans hold weekly.
The e-mail said: "Jim Kennedy spoke at the Friday Lunch Bunch today. He spoke in favor of cutting parks and social services in order to make sure the primary functions of county government (courts and criminal justice) are paid for."
I thought it a strange statement for a Democratic candidate for sheriff to make and immediately doubted its authenticity. So I called Kennedy on the phone and he stated, in no uncertain terms, that the e-mail's description of his statements was false.
Of course. I never had a doubt that the Republican operative was only interested in smearing a Democratic candidate among Democrats. But the whole thing led me to another line of thinking. What the heck is the matter with these people?
As I said, the Republican operative who sent the e-mail doesn't himself have two nickels to rub together. He's exactly the kind of person who most benefits from public amenities, such as parks, and social services that help people get a leg up economically.
Why would he want to attack that part of government that most directly benefits him? What's the matter with him?
The cold comfort of authority
As I wondered about that, I wondered also about the message that the right was sending. Parks bad. Social services bad. More police, more jails, good.
Of course, much of that is easily understood. The right is the ideology of authority, of right and wrong, of harsh father figures and stern punishment for transgression. It's an ideology that took Ben Franklin's admonition that "God helps those who help themselves" to heart, while believing that it was Jesus, not Franklin, who said it.
In other words, the right is predisposed to prefer the crack of a truncheon to a hand of assistance. A shared cell to a shared park. What's the matter with that?
The matter is that it's neither cost-effective, nor possible, nor even what the people desire.
Take care of the small sums, the large ones take care of themselves
Monroe County's budget for its parks and recreation department for 2007 is $528,331 — a cut of $23,000 from this year's parks budget. Sounds like a lot, until you consider that the entire county's 2007 budget is $45 million (also a cut from last year).
Parks constitute a whopping one percent of county government's expenditures. Wow.
Compare that to the budgets of the county's courts and criminal justice system for 2007: $8.2 million. In other words, the park's budget would fit into the courts' and criminal justice budgets 16 times over.
County government spends 16 times as much money on crackin' heads and caging criminals as it does on parks and recreation.
This despite the fact that there's been no survey, that I know of, citing citizen preferences for spending taxpayer funds on incarceration over recreation. I do know of several surveys, including the one done by the city of Bloomington, where citizens expressed desire for more, not less, recreational amenities from their government.
Because, unlike law enforcement, parks are one of the few venues where citizens have a positive interaction with their government.
Penny wise and pound foolish
I won't go into the fact that one of the original purposes of county government was the distribution of social services. Nor will I go into the fact that the purpose of social services is to prevent people from falling into the abyss and joining the criminal class in the first place.
In other words that social services exist to lessen the load on the criminal justice system. I won't go into that.
The vast majority of Monroe County's social service funding comes from the federal and state governments and is specifically earmarked. That includes $11 million for the department of child services, for example.
And it includes local funds, required by Indiana law — like the tax required for the operation of community health centers, and mental retardation and disability centers such as Options for Better Living.
I will go into the fact that "social services" money couldn't be redirected to criminal justice, or any other use, even if we wanted it to. Which we've never said we did.
But for some reason the right, and those on the right most in need and desire of exactly these services, feel it necessary to trash what is in their own best interest.
What's the matter with them?
Gregory Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.