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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Seeing Trolls

March 25, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

For three days earlier this week, I thought that March’s snowmelt was slowly revealing a tiny red-roofed troll’s house in my backyard. Disregarding rationalism, I toyed with that idea that trolls really live among us, mostly unseen yet periodically glimpsed. But, what we’d like to see frequently contrasts sharply with reality. On Wednesday morning, with the little red roof reburied beneath fresh snow, I heard a radio news story about conservative public policymakers’ plan to balance Minnesota’s $5.2 billion budget deficit. Cleary, they’re seeing tiny red-roofed trolls’ homes, too.

Minnesota’s conservative legislative majority caucuses propose resolving Minnesota’s budget crisis through spending cuts. That’s it. No revenue increases. No balanced approached pairing cuts with tax hikes. Their plan preserves Minnesota’s present revenue generation structure. Minnesota’s income tax levels will remain the same while the “no new taxes” policy simultaneously causes increased local property taxes and further reduces investments in Minnesota’s schools, health care, roads, bridges, and economic development.

The conservative policy plan also insists that Minnesota lay off 15 percent of the state workforce. They don’t say which 15 percent, just that 15 percent fewer state workers are necessary. That’s a little like telling me to conserve gas mileage by eliminating 15 percent of my car. I could focus on weight reduction, gutting the interior, losing doors, bumpers and the spare tire. But, since a car’s major weight items are the engine, frame and transmission, trimming 15 percent doesn’t leave me with many options. In fact, the directive severely compromises driver and passenger safety.

What’s the thinking here? The stated conservative objective insists that government threatens a free people’s liberty. Any reduction in government services, by extension, translates into greater liberty. Fewer cops, fewer firefighters, fewer libraries, fewer rec centers, fewer teachers teaching more kids in larger but fewer classes, fewer snow plows, fewer safety inspectors, fewer public health workers tracking more communicable diseases, and fewer consumer fraud protection attorneys, to only name a few, means more freedom and greater liberty. At least, that’s the conservative theory.

At a practical, day-in and day-out level, conservative policy really isn’t about expanding everyone’s freedom. No, it’s more about more freedom for a few at most people’s expense. In my mind, freedom means choice to live in greater or reduced contact with other people. It carries the responsibility to bear the cost of that choice because freedom without cost or responsibility isn’t freedom so much as it is the imposition of individual will on others by force. And, in conservative public policymakers’ determination to do less for most Minnesotans while doing more for a few high income earners, that’s what happening.

At another revealing practical level, the conservative budget-balancing-though-cuts-alone plan labors under a greater problem. It doesn’t work. And, by “doesn’t work,” I mean that their numbers don’t add up. Conservative legislators are, for example, planning to cut tax compliance enforcement staff while simultaneously projecting increased revenue from greater enforcement efforts. There’s just one problem: it doesn’t work like that, at least not in real life.

Consequently, what could be offered as a series of well-considered arguments for reducing state government’s role and function in order to achieve increased prosperity and economic well-being falters on its merits.

Instead, we confront a collection of half-baked proposals rooted in the idea that anything reducing government must be good. The idea that conservative policy proposals balancing the state budget deficit create more harm than good appears to be lost on them. I can’t voice my concerns any more simply or clearly than observing that conservative numbers don’t add up. Since they don’t, every Minnesotan ought to be wary. It’s one thing to enjoy Nordic troll stories; it’s quite another to insist that trolls are standing before the legislature, applauding conservative legislators’ efforts.

And in my backyard? It’s not red-roofed troll house at all.

Earlier in the winter, my daughter and a friend were using a square red bucket to make snow blocks, leading to a snow fort. After an hour of dull, repetitive snow block production, they realized that their good idea wasn’t worth their time or effort. They abandoned it, along the red bucket, to go sledding. More snow covered the bucket until, with the thaw, it reemerged. I was the only one seeing trolls and even then, it was only because I was kidding myself.

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