and the world laughs with you" — unless, of course, the world blames
you for the miserable situation that you consider funny.
I can see the funny side of politics. Even when it's truly awful,
"laughter is the way in which I register despair," as Eleanor of
Aquitaine said in "A Lion in Winter."
many years I enjoyed watching the televised coverage of
Massachusetts pols' St. Patrick's Day breakfast. The last few years,
not so much. This year, not at all.
it on Sunday morning at 10, heard Sen. Jack Hart make a dumb joke
about Catholics giving up their 401(k)s for Lent, didn't laugh,
turned it off. Went back to my favorite talking-head shows: "This
Week With George Stephanopoulos," "Fox News Sunday" with Chris
Wallace, "Meet the Press" with David Gregory.
I got to
hear representatives of the Obama administration explain why AIG is
using $165 million of its $170 billion taxpayer bailout to give
bonuses to its executives. But they were telling one big, unfunny
joke too: "We can't prevent this because they have contracts."
Barney Frank, the congressman from Newton, was even less amusing.
But at least George, Chris and David weren't singing Irish pub songs
past, when things went wrong with government, I'd think of George
Santayana's warning about those who don't remember the past being
doomed to repeat it. There was a pattern at both the state and
federal levels, with economic downturns followed by recoveries, with
overspending in the good times followed by cutbacks and tax hikes in
the bad. It was annoying that politicians kept making the same, dumb
mistakes in response to normal economic cycles; but history also
reassured us that the economy would bounce back. This time, I'm not
so sure that this is just a temporary cycle.
don't look at Massachusetts within the national and international
contexts, the state's situation is familiar. Those of us who
remember the past are doomed to watch politicians who do not
remember it, repeat it. Here is some recent history as I've lived
Gov. Michael Dukakis, just back from running for president on the
Massachusetts Miracle, files a budget that requires a billion
dollars in new taxes. Angry at having been misled about state
revenues and unpaid Medicaid bills, the Legislature balks.
House Speaker George Keverian, who died this month, had chosen a
leadership team of the best and the brightest; his style was to let
them lead in their areas of expertise. Ways & Means Chairman Richard
Voke, D-Chelsea, and conservative Democrats like Taxation Committee
Chairman Jack Flood, D-Canton, joined with feisty Republicans to
create a House budget with reforms, cuts, and "no new taxes."
wasn't easy. Dukakis partisans attacked Keverian as "weak" and
accused his leaders of lacking the courage to raise taxes.
Special-interest groups flooded the Statehouse, some in costume
(e.g.; welfare mothers wore chains; the "arts" lobby dressed as
giant Crayola crayons). But the governor's budget was cut and went
on to the Senate.
were prepared to go along with the House. But when they held a
budget hearing, the so-called Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation (MTF)
showed up and testified that its econometric model showed that
revenues were improving and there was no need for such restraint.
Surprised, but shrugging (Why go through what the House went
through?), the Senate increased the budget again.
summer, revenues were down and the commonwealth was in crisis.
Democrats relented and passed a "temporary,
18-month hike in the state's income tax," from 5 percent to 5.75
percent. A year later, the rate was increased to 6.25 percent as
part of a much larger tax package that included a sales tax on
services and an increase in the gas tax from 11 cents to 21 cents a
gallon, "with the proceeds going for the repair of bridges and
roads," according to news accounts.
hadn't thrown a wrench in the works with inaccurate numbers, the
commonwealth could have enacted major reforms instead of taxes and
perhaps avoided the next fiscal crises, including this one — except,
of course, for this one's national aspects.
Fun-loving Democrats celebrating St. Patrick's Sunday can't be
blamed for the national meltdown. They are, however, responsible for
the years of union kissing-up that created the public employee
pension scams, which aren't funny when private-sector working
families are losing 401(k) savings. They are also responsible for
taking that gas-tax increase of 1990, then allowing other
Massachusetts bridges and roads to continue to deteriorate.
should learn from history and if gas, sales and income-tax hikes
pass again, repeat what they did in 1990: Defeat those legislators
who voted for them and elect a taxpayer-friendly governor.
turn back to the St. Patrick's Sunday breakfast in time to hear
Congressman Stephen Lynch sing about changing his name to Merrill
Lynch, noting, "I'll be ready, I'll get mine!"
admit: I laughed. In this case, enough public ridicule might force
some action. If not, at least I've registered despair.