Archive Hosted by the AFL-CIO

Minnesota 2020 Journal: Don’t Make the Same Mistake Twice

July 04, 2014 By John Van Hecke, Publisher

Big Ole took a hit. And, if we reverse public policy direction, returning to what didn’t work for 10 years, Minnesota will take a bigger, harder, worse hit.

Alexandria, Minnesota’s Big Ole statue, a proud, strong representation of Western Minnesota’s Scandinavian heritage, lost a wing adornment from his winged helmet in the recent storms. Big Ole now bears but one wing.

In the interest of historical accuracy, I encourage Alexandrians to knock the other one off rather than replace it. Similarly, conservative policy advocates, like those running for governor, would be well-advised to apply the same strategy to their jointly expressed policy proposals coming, as they did, at the same time as weekend storms swept our state. The policy damage that they would do will cost Minnesotans more than a dinged fiberglass helmet.

A clear-eyed consideration of history propels both observations. The past as it was is rarely the past that we’d like it to be. History is an extraordinarily useful guide but only if fact genuinely matches present question.

Real Vikings wore practical battle helmets. There’s no documentary, physical or archeological evidence supporting winged or horned helmets in Viking martial use. The sole possible exception appears to be a Ninth Century, C.E., tapestry that might include a winged helmet wearing figure.

The Oseberg Tapestry, like many surviving 1200 year old textile works, is in tough shape. It exists in fragments, removed from an excavated Viking ceremonial funerary ship, the Oseberg. Scholarly study, leading to the tapestry’s recreation, suggests that one of the figures might be wearing a winged helmet. Oh, and that figure might actually be a Norse god, not a Viking.

That’s it. That’s the sum physical proof of Vikings wearing winged or horned helmets. Jump forward a thousand years and European artists were falling all over themselves inventing a mythic past that included most every Viking wearing a winged or horned helmet. Why? Winged helmets are cool. Painting the romanticized, mythic past is a lot easier using cool helmets worn by ruggedly handsome Viking warriors than it is using schlumpy images of stringy haired guys with practical but unadorned pots on their heads.

This leads to the important question, pivoting into today’s public policy debate. Why do we take great pains to romanticize our past? Because the mythic past helps us pursue public policy objectives better than the actual, complicated past. It’s the idea, usually expressed around nationalism, that “we were a great people once; we’re destined to be a great people again.” Persuaded by a mythic past, policy advocates assure us that imagined past glories may be realized if we just adopt a conservative policy agenda.

During the same storm swept weekend, Minnesota’s four conservative gubernatorial candidates, contending in the Republican primary election, appeared together on Almanac, Twin Cities Public Television’s weekly current affairs show. All four advocated strongly for tax cuts and improved transportation funding without increasing taxes. They uniformly criticized Governor Mark Dayton for destroying Minnesota’s job and economic growth climate, remaining undeterred by low unemployment data and Minnesota’s expanding economy.

Even as Minnesota’s transportation experts warn that Minnesota will need to spend billions annually to just to maintain the state’s bridge and highway network, the four conservative candidates insisted that this work could be achieved without raising taxes.

Roads and bridges resist ideological framing. Their wear is dictated by use, design, materials and time, not politics. Roads and bridges support their designed purpose until construction materials degrade. At that point, elected leaders have a range of choices. They can restrict use, slowing future deterioration; patch the worst problems; close the road or bridge entirely; or fund reconstruction, extending life for another generation. Doing nothing rapidly increases the risk of catastrophic failure.

The only way to fund road and bridge reconstruction without generating new revenue or increasing the state budget is to cut other program funding. Minnesota’s present state biennial budget is roughly $41 billion. Holding that figure steady -which won’t actually happen but, for illustration’s sake, let’s say that it will- means subtracting billions of new road and bridge maintenance spending from current programs. Like schools.

Minnesota currently allocates $16.7 billion for K12 spending. Moving even $2 billion represents a 12% education funding cut - enough to cancel out modest K12 funding increases that have just begun to reverse ten years of serious funding cuts, and accelerate the downward slide. But, Minnesota wouldn’t raise income taxes.

Policymakers could shift $2 billion of the state’s roughly $3 billion local property tax aids and credits to road and bridge maintenance budgets. That would also be, in conservative policy terms, an anti-tax measure. It would also absolutely raise local property taxes as counties and cities return to scrambling to make up for state revenue sharing cuts.

Ten years of conservative policy direction forced communities to make difficult, debilitating decisions. Minnesota’s crumbling road and bridge infrastructure is only one example. Blithely calling for tax cuts while insinuating past success misreads the past and misleads Minnesotans. In the interest of historical accuracy, understand that 2003-2012 conservative public policy initiatives damaged Minnesota, rather than create growth and prosperity. Let’s not make the same mistake twice.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.