Opinion and Forefront

MADISON: Tax-cut promises make cheap politics

March 2, 2013

James H. MadisonPromising to cut taxes is not political leadership. It’s cheap and easy.

Our democracy needs leaders who tell us there is no free lunch, offer thoughtful choices, and help us decide what we want among competing goods.

What we have instead over the last three decades is a rush only to cut taxes, even to give us tax refunds.

It wasn’t always this way.

When baby boomers hit Indiana’s schools, political leaders in the early 1960s told Hoosiers we needed more money to pay for bulging classrooms.

In one of the most dramatic moments in the history of the General Assembly, Republican Lt. Gov. Dick Ristine broke a tie to vote in favor of the state’s first sales tax.

As the need for higher-quality education grew in the 1980s, Republican Gov. Robert Orr pushed through a tax increase to pay for better schools.

Times changed. It was a Democrat, Evan Bayh, who in his 1988 campaign and two terms as governor helped convince Hoosiers that cutting taxes was leadership.

Republicans quickly embraced the cheap and easy way.

There are always things we can’t afford, though we should remember that we’re actually a low-tax state, with consequent low levels of public services.

Some say that’s what we want. We want government off our backs and out of our checking accounts. Good enough is good enough.

In truth, we want government to provide all manner of services. We’re just not sure why we have to pay for them.

That’s where leaders come in. Their job is to help us decide among hard alternatives. Even parents give children explanations along the lines of, “The natural consequences of your choices are …”

Two centuries ago, pioneers worshipped at the shrine of small government but insisted that someone deal with Indians; sell them cheap public land; and build roads, canals and railroads.

Turns out Hoosier pioneers wanted lots from their government, even more than they could afford to pay.

Government can’t do it all. To have more of this, we may have to accept less of that.

We might even decide to seek excellence in some areas we think are highest priority, rather than settling for good enough as good enough across the board (excepting basketball, where excellence is essential).

Are Hoosiers smart enough to look carefully at policy alternatives and make hard decisions, even in zero-sum situations?

It’s the job of our leaders to help us see the alternatives, the cost and benefits, the different roads toward good, better or best in education, health care, infrastructure, environmental regulation. Even spending on economic development needs analysis and discussion rather than assuming it’s always logical, good and necessary.

If we assessed costs and benefits, wouldn’t we want, for example, to spend more on anti-smoking education in order to reap large savings in health care?

Two hundred years ago, Territorial Gov. Thomas Posey argued that Indiana couldn’t afford to become a state. Taxes would increase. Smart Hoosiers made a different choice in 1816.

Let’s hope that, before the next election, smart Hoosiers insist our political leaders help us assess costs and benefits and seek reasonable alternatives. Perhaps our bicentennial in 2016 will spark such big thinking.

Perhaps we’ll decide to raise taxes; perhaps we’ll lower taxes. But that’s only the result of making thoughtful choices.

When politicians promise only that they are going to cut our taxes, we should, as when the dinner guest talks only of honor, start counting our spoons.•

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Madison, an Indiana University historian, is author of the forthcoming book “Hoosiers: A History of Indiana.” Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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