We’re in Alameda, California, for ten days, visiting the grandchildren and also their parents. The big news here is that the Alameda public schools are in a money crunch. The root cause is Proposition 13, the granddaddy of pernicious tax-limiting amendments (we have one in Colorado, too -- it’s paralyzed us). The immediate precipitant of the Alameda crisis is Governor Schwarzenegger’s plan to balance the budget by cutting brazillions of dollars out of the education budget. Public-spirited citizens in the island city have responded by proposing a supplementary “parcel tax” -- most people say property tax – of $120 per "parcel" of real estate to help the school district survive these dark days. To me, the tax supplement is an imperfect but obvious fix. Public schools must be supported, and if the state shirks its responsibility, local effort must ride to the rescue.
There’s the usual testy opposition: too much fat in the budget; teachers are overpaid; school board is incompetent; bad planning. I know enough about public education's lean diet not to be swayed.
What gets my goat is that some of the arguments against the supplement are just plain mean. Here’s an example. A local curmudgeon named Guy Smith has written a guest opinion in the Alameda Journal under the heading: “Make Parents Pay for Child’s Education,” His gist: “It is no longer appropriate to tax childless homes for public education.” And also: people who support such taxes suffer from “collectivist mentalities."
And here I thought that the American constitution had in its preamble a phrase about promoting the “general" and not just the individual welfare. No doubt Mr. Smith would stigmatize Madison and Jefferson as early collectivists.
The argument that the childless need not contribute to education is flimsy -- so slight that it’s hard to believe that it’s argued in good faith and is not just a rationale for skinflintism. Does Mr. Smith think that he shouldn’t pay for the fire department or the police department, except on the days that he happens to use them?
Does he think that he doesn’t profit from the educational system because he has no children in school. He can read and write. Did he teach himself? He’s sitting at a computer, designed by someone with an education. His chair and his table and his coffee and the cup out of which he drinks his coffee were designed or planned or imported or constructed or distributed by people who could read and write and figure. Take away the learning of his predecessors and members of his own age-cohort and Mr. Smith would be out there chasing squirrels with a flint hand-ax. And whining about the cost of the clan-supplied flint.
The essence of Mr. Smith’s argument is selfish and narcissistic -- “I’ve got mine – you take care of yourself.” It’s shallow, vulgar libertarianism.
It's a shame that these nay sayers need to by reminded that we’re all in this together. We’re interconnected -- a tissue of tessellations.
Even Mr. Smith must know, deep in his heart, that when he promotes the general welfare, he improves his own lot. In fact, the parcel tax will be the best investment he’ll ever make.