For my own edification (and to make an occasional buck), I sometimes give a speech. A question-and-answer session usually follows, and it is in these, over the past year or so, that I have noticed something: Americans now seem willing to pay more in taxes. The catch is they want the additional money targeted for specific purposes. To me, that reads like a variation of a sign out of the Jim Crow era: For Me Only.
The impression I get from speaking to groups is precisely the same one journalists have gotten from focus groups and polls. Now that impression has been confirmed by California voters. They chose to double the state's gas tax from 9 to 18 cents a gallon. The proceeds will be used to improve California's transportation system. That's a worthy cause, but it's not -- by a long shot -- low-income housing or education.
After the California vote, a kind of cheer went up from the half-dozen or so liberals still left: The back of Reaganism was at last broken. Whether it meant to or not, The New York Times summed up that reaction when it headlined the California story "Tax Revolt Fades" -- and led the paper with it. My own headline would have been somewhat more cynical. As I read the California vote it's merely a variation on the Reaganism theme.
People no longer believe that taxes can be lowered -- and kept low -- without consequence. The evidence of that folly is all around them. The highways they travel, the bridges they fear to cross, the airports where they while away the day, all testify to the need for more public funds.
If these same people think about it, they may also conclude that the government has been penny wise and pound foolish. For instance, one element in the $500 billion savings and loan scandal was the implementation of cost-cutting: the ranks of auditors and inspectors were thinned. If there was ever any proof that when the cat's away the mice will play, it's the savings-and- loan industry. There's little left but a speck of cheese.
At just about every government agency where there have been scandals, there have also been massive reductions in personnel. Some agencies were no doubt bloated, but the budget cuts went way past the fat and deep into the bone.
At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the very people who were supposed to monitor the grants that no one can now believe were made had been let go. As with the savings-and-loan industry, real-estate developers were monitored only by their conscience -- virtually a contradiction in terms.
So now Americans are trying to make some amends. They don't like their roads. They think bridges are unsafe. But this latter-day acknowledgment of civic responsibility remains a restricted one. It does not embrace the notion of community, that is to say what we think we owe others. If we get stuck in traffic all the time then, fine, with great reluctance we'll approve a tax increase. But should the same people be asked to enrich a school-lunch program or spend what's needed to lower the shocking infant-mortality rate in inner cities, then a hand clamps on the wallet. That's called throwing money at the problem -- something that's okay when it comes to, say, transportation (since when did more highways reduce traffic?) but sinful when it comes to social programs.
To the extent that white America sees poverty in racial terms, the divisions within our national community are only widened. The "common ground" that Jesse Jackson often mentions has become a figment of his imagination. The very institutions that, in a physical sense, once comprised common ground have been abandoned by white America -- everything from public libraries to public health to even the city itself. Multiracial by day, it's something else after dark.
In fact, affluent Americans have privatized what were once public services. Suburban developments are guarded by their own private police departments. Public transportation has been replaced by the automobile. In certain cities, Washington for instance, private schooling is routine for affluent whites and, to a lesser degree, blacks as well. The public schools are mostly for the poor. Try raising money for schools from parents who send their kids to private institutions.
So the California vote, as much as it is welcome, is hardly a departure from the pattern of the last decade. It is simply another example of the middle class paying for what it wants -- in this case, better transportation. The notion of community that Ronald Reagan valued in rhetoric but devalued through policy still awaits a political leader who can convince Americans that we are all in the same boat. Sooner or later the leak at one end is going to sink us all.