Yet another high-water mark

It may have been because I hadn’t slept well the night before, but a couple of days ago, while I was riding the subway to work, a newspaper article about state parks almost brought tears to my eyes. And not near-tears of joy, or of wistful memories of childhood trips. The article just made me sad.

“In State Parks, the Sharpest Ax is the Budget’s.” It’s hardly surprising: states, unlike the federal government, can’t run deficits, so since tax receipts are down due to a crash in property values and a big recession, state governments have been desperately short of cash for several years. Raising taxes is apparently tantamount to infanticide. So the only thing to do is cut spending.

And here’s how some states are cutting spending: in Washington, no state parks will get any tax dollars starting July 1. Yes, zero public tax dollars for state parks. California will permanently close 70 state parks this fall. Idaho has raised user fees and started selling Frisbees to raise funds and is doing a lot of “marketing.” Parks departments are relying on volunteers and community organizations for basic maintenance tasks. Arizona and Florida are thinking about privatizing their state parks systems. In Ohio, the legislature is about to pass an “inventive” bill that would allow oil and gas drilling in state parks.

You will notice that these things are fundamentally incompatible with the traditional understanding of “public” in the phrase “public parks” or “public services.” There used to be this idea that conservatives as well as liberals accepted that there are these things economists call “public goods,” things that are difficult to maintain by private means but that benefit such a large proportion of the population that the government should step in and provide them. When you tried to explain this concept to someone who was new to economics, you’d list obvious examples, like roads, clean air, and, um, parks. Rich people don’t lack for access to lovely beaches or pristine wilderness or nice places to hike, but the rest of us need the government to step in and preserve some wild areas, maintain trails and porta-potties, hire a few rangers.

It turns out, though, that this is old-fashioned thinking. Neoliberalism is ascendant, the ideology that says private is always better (more “efficient”!) than public (except, weirdly, in fighting crime and fighting overseas enemies, which are two areas where the government has demonstrated far less competence than in, say, running an immunization program or, indeed, a parks department). So what if poor people can’t afford user fees for a beach they used to go to for free, and so what if the next time you go hiking the trail detours around an oil-shale “fracking” rig. Taxes will be low! And your better off without that bloated, inefficient government anyway.

I don’t know. It’s not like state parks are my favorite thing in the whole world, and it’s not like this is the worst consequence of the seemingly unstoppable tide of neoliberal fuckery. But somehow, this article was just exhausting. We can’t even have public parks anymore?

10 responses to “Yet another high-water mark”

  1. AWB says:

    I want to have a big billboard that says, “Republicans, you’re the reason we can’t have nice things!” and then list all the things rich people’s taxes used to provide to make this country nicer. This is painful.

  2. F. P. Smearcase says:

    It’s horribly dispiriting. Public parks are where people go with the one intention of having a nice time, so closing them in particular feels like canceling a kid’s birthday party. I want to make all manner of tantrum-y analogies. “Sorry, little Quayden*! We called all your friends and told them to stay home. The drug war just seemed more important than having cake and water-balloon fights.”

    *or whatever the fuck people are naming their kids right now

  3. F. P. Smearcase says:

    (I mean this is just the emotive content. It’s also horrible environmentally and as a bellwether of how the class war is going &c &c &c.)

  4. AWB says:

    BUT IT’S NOT EVEN THE DRUG WAR. This is about tax revenue. It’s about tax revenue. Goddamn it. Nothing is happening with that money except giving more of it back to the wealthy so they can afford to by former state parks and build mega-homes on them. Oh look this sublime and historically crucial bridge is my driveway yuk yuk.

  5. Rachel says:

    I come from NH, which has no state income tax or sales tax. Most revenues are gathered through property taxes (which are high, but constantly embattled at the local level to stay down). Schools are underfunded and dependent, indelibly now, on the state lottery. (Many states have adopted this sick strategy, but NH pioneered it.) There are virtually no parks. Roads are horrendously maintained, sidewalks practically nonexistent. Very few social services, and virtually no social safety net aside from federal programs. Not a lot of rental housing. No public transportation to speak of. The state university’s tuitions are the highest of any state school in the nation. Yet it’s hardly a Republican paradise–more like a libertarian bad dream. The cost of living remains very high. If you want to see where this line of economic reasoning leads, look at NH.

    One interesting side effect is the rapid graying of the population. There’s virtually no incentive to move there, and little in the way of industry to get young people to stay. The elderly population’s dependence on Social Security and Medicare may radicalize their politics once they realize how eager the right is to sell them out.

    Imagine my surprise when I moved away from home at 17 and discovered magical things like “parks” and “buses.”

  6. J-Man says:

    Yeah, this whole trend really freaks me out too. It reeks of a sort of desperation, that people can’t see the bigger picture. Dave, at the risk of you telling me to JFGI, what do you mean when you say that these are “Neoliberal” ideas? I thought that privitization and refusal to raise taxes for the greater good were considered Neocon ideas.

  7. Dave says:

    J-Man, that’s a perfectly good question. “Neoliberalism” is a term that’s been used more in non-U.S.ian contexts, I think, although it’s gaining currency here. Think in terms of what are sometimes called “classical liberals” like Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. Then take their faith in the ability of markets to create an optimal ordering of human activity and feed it steroids mixed with a lot of technical economics stuff that intimidates other people. Neoliberalism is basically an ideology that claims to promote the free market (whatever that is), deregulation, disempowerment of organized labor, privatization of state-owned enterprises, the lowering of certain kinds of trade barriers, the elimination of checks on international financial flows, plus, on the flip side, a strong tough-on-crime emphasis and, usually, a hawkish view of military affairs. Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan are the famous first-wave neoliberal leaders in politics. But as an ideology it’s infected both parties in the U.S. (just look at Bill Clinton’s economic policies, and Obama’s) and is also the key to understanding Tony Blair’s New Labour.

    A good place to start with neoliberalism is A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey; very accessible and short. I’m in the middle of a slightly more complicated book called The Illusion of Free Markets by Bernard Harcourt, which tries to bring together the pro-market and tough-on-crime parts of neoliberal politics. It’s really great so far, and it also has a fantastic bibliography of work on the topic.

  8. J-Man says:

    Thanks Dave. Everything you describe still sounds to me like basic conservatism, but obviously I’m looking at things through a very simplistic lens. Clearly I have a lot of reading to do.

  9. Dave says:

    You’re correct that it’s an ideology of the right. But there are lots of kinds of conservatism. Neoliberalism is mostly about how the government should interact with markets and corporations. (Even its tough-on-crime aspect is at least on the surface about channeling private interactions into the market, with criminal activity being seen as inefficient, extra-market activity.) Neoconservatism, on the other hand, has a large component that’s about finding an external enemy to rally the plebes around the social order, and another component that’s about finding some kind of useful moralism, preferably religious, to rally the plebes around the social order. There are other strains of conservatism besides these two, and they often get mixed up, either in the same political coalition or in the same person. Reagan is, I think, most usefully thought of as a neoliberal, but his anti-Soviet stuff was straight from the neocon playbook.

    The thing about neoliberalism is, it really is a bipartisan consensus at this point. Even many progressives have essentially adopted the neoliberal valorization of the power of “free markets” and just want to tinker a bit around the edges.