Friday, March 11, 2011

Profiles in Florida: Rick Scott's Daily Kill Count

Opening the front page of a newspaper in Florida these last few weeks has been like leafing through the crime report in a neighborhood with heavy prostitution problems: you just scan columns until you see if a name you recognize got fucked yesterday. This week's victims are children and the elderly.

Governor Rick Scott wants to slash the budget for Florida's Department of Children and Families, a menacing government octopus strangling the budget with an inane mandate for helping victims of child, spousal and elder abuse, as well as getting medicine and basic food services to the disadvantaged.

Unsurprisingly, Scott and DCF Secretary David Wilkins don't want to talk about the cuts, ducking questions whenever possible and, when cornered, answering them with the same weightless banalities that were the hallmark of Scott's campaign. Nobody likes it when kids starve or get used as sexual toys or punching bags, and in a state filled with elderly people, anyone cutting assistance to elder safety comes off like a monster. There's really no way to make DCF cuts sexy, unless you're playing to an audience of pedophiles or teaparty ideologues, both of which operate via single-minded lusts that overwhelm subtler considerations.

Thus, the Governor has returned to his campaign imagery of belt-tightening, trying to make grim reductions that would cut 1,849 jobs and hack down the DCF budget by $179 million seem like the result of an honest laborer "going without." It's high-minded austerity, not further reductions coming on the heels of a decade of GOP contempt for the agency. And besides, by tomorrow, the Governor will have tried to de-fund the shit out of something else, bumping DCF to the back pages. The only problem is that these platitudes of sober self-abnegation and getting down to work never apply to Scott or his tax bracket.

As the linked article points out, Scott's budget also calls for a $343 million increase in the Governor's staff allocations, adding 91 jobs to the executive orbit of His Nibs. Now, obviously the money Scott calls for, for the executive, will not go solely to those 91 jobs, nor will the cuts to DCF come solely from those 1,849 jobs. To suggest as much is cynical and a little dishonest, but since that's what Scott's budget mathematics and political philosophy trade in, it's only fair to crunch some numbers on his terms.

For instance, Scott's rationale for crippling, strangling or outright eliminating any state agency vaguely related to regulation of any sort supposedly comes not from his ideological loathing of regulation but from an absolute imperative to reduce state expenditures. The State of Florida operates on a balanced budget, so spending cuts must be made in order to permit tax cuts. Tax cuts are necessary because they will "create jobs." That's what tax cuts do; they create jobs. Jobs are needed, so tax cuts must be as well. Eventually, so many jobs will be created that people will spend so much on sales tax that the state will get a surplus of tax revenue, which the Republican state House and Senate will immediately use to restore all the eliminated services and not as an excuse for more tax cuts. This has always happened in the past. Click here for a list of examples from history.

So the math works out something like this:
1,849 jobs at an average of $96,000 per job must be eliminated while we create
91 jobs at roughly $3,769,000 per job for
a net total of 1,758 jobs lost and $-164 million saved.
As said before, Scott, like most members of the GOP, seems so consumed with loathing for any sort of regulatory body that he's forgotten that regulation is a job. (He's already pledged to destroy his bĂȘte noire, the DCA.) Jobs must be created — just not those ones, because they don't count. They use things like laws and community standards and apply them to people who have other jobs, often extracting fees for illegal activity. This is bad revenue and bad employment. On the ledger, they count as non-money and non-jobs, so it's in citizens' interest to not want them.

But the story doesn't end there, because Florida needs even more jobs to counteract the effect of regulatory Bad Jobs, which means cutting even more taxes. To that end, Scott has pledged to eliminate the state's corporate tax in seven years, cutting $459 million this year alone. To put it in terms of the Department of Children and Families cuts, Scott proposes to save corporations over 2.5 times the cost of cuts to an agency that aids the most vulnerable citizens in the state.*

* — All of the above cuts are unrelated to the half-billion in cuts to property taxes made at the expense of Florida schools. Naturally, residents will remember that it was a large property tax cut/cap in 2007-8 — one dubiously sold as a populist measure and ludicrously relying on an ever-expanding bubble — that precipitated four years of budget crisis, elimination of state services and relentless downsizing of county governments, including bullshit like libraries and public bathrooms in parks. If you are someone employed by a Florida state or county government in any capacity other than arresting or incarcerating minorities, chances are you've spent half a decade expecting to be fired, unless you've been fired already. But, hey, projecting $4.1 billion in tax cuts in a year in which the state faces $3.6 billion in budget shortfalls just makes sense. Why? — because it will magically recreate all the jobs already lost to tax cuts, only it will do so without government revenue.

The problem, as the nattering nabobs point out, is that Florida's corporate tax system is already extremely friendly. Only five states have better flat corporate tax rates than Florida, and, of those, four offer rates lower by only 0.5% to 0.87%. The distinctions are so low as to be negligible, yet Scott's vision for the state involves a self-defeating level of competition, like winning a foot race by breaking your own legs. And, as the Orlando Sentinel points out, the idea that the corporate tax rate is the sole determining factor in out-of-state business relocation to Florida is painfully myopic. Corporations have to factor in transportation logistics, employee real estate and local tax concerns and insurance, labor and construction costs, all of which tend to trump the corporate tax incentive.

But eliminating the corporate tax rate, like expanding the budget of the Governor's office, has one common denominator, which is that it expands the coffers of things that people like Rick Scott run. This is the only ideologically consistent throughnote of his budgetary plan. Robbing Peter to pay Paul only makes sense if you think Peter is a Godless communist, and Paul is a dynamo who could use a tax break to invest in controlling ownership in the toll roads leading to Damascus, where he can soak all the poor bastards just trying to ship fresh figs to market.

From a pure elementary-school-math standpoint, the concept is stupid. Eliminating jobs is the dumbest way of increasing jobs, and it's even dumber if you do it with an anti-public sector bias while hobbling a state agency that has already semi-privatized its responsibilities and relied on delegating burdens to volunteer organizations. And offsetting immediate revenue shortfalls by eliminating immediate taxes in the hopes of possibly collecting more taxes years from now is phenomenally stupid. It's the statewide equivalent of a poor family refusing to give up eating steak once a week and deciding that a better idea is to solve the sirloin shortfall by taking the monthly food budget to the slot machines and yanking again and again. Speak blinkeredly and rely on jerking Fortuna's big stick.

Really, though, this is mostly irrelevant. "Tax cuts = entrepreneurialism = higher revenue" is axiomatic and unassailable, as is the idea that there is no possible alternative, despite the fact that it's not true. Besides, tomorrow will bring another state agency slated for fiscal demolition, sending the current outrage to the morgue of injustices. If the last thirty years of conservative governance has taught us anything, it's that the eradication of power and support for the middle- and lower-class is a marathon, not a sprint. Tomorrow is always a fresh nightmare.

In this respect, Rick Scott is something of an accidental political genius. He's willing to fuck up and destroy so much shit in such determined and unremitting succession that the damage doesn't even register anymore. It's only been weeks, and already Scott's tenure is like watching a Jerry Lewis scene where he starts out spilling a drink on a sofa, gets something stuck on his hand, knocks over a lamp, shorts-out an electrical socket, starts a fire, triggers the sprinkler system and then knocks over a prized vase: eventually there's no point in murmuring about destroyed fabric, even if it's that of the socio-economic order of tens of millions.

Watching the gristly, predatory horror reminds me of a classic strip from the comic Bloom County. In it, Milo Bloom presents his science fair project to his elementary school teacher, Bobbi Harlow. This may seem far-fetched, because today, of course, Miss Harlow would have long been fired because she failed to teach the kids to standardized testing that determined her "value" as an educator and how much her students learned about standardized tests. Also, Milo, as a white child, would have used vouchers to escape leveling socialism and attend a private school, where they have libraries that contain Jesus vaults.

Nevertheless, Milo has his science project, which has taken the form of a liberal protest and involves his feeding rabbits named after federal social programs to a python named after Ronald Reagan's budget director David Stockman. Once she learns what's fed to the snake, there follows this exchange:
MILO: Yes. I'm afraid it was dear CETA's turn yesterday.
MISS HARLOW: That's horrible!
MILO: Well, that's the point.