Tuesday is Election Day here in Saint Paul. It hasn’t been an exciting election, but that only figures. As the economic situation continues, there’s little for local governments all across the nation to do but settle in for a long siege. There’s a good reason for this.
Local elections can be a lot of fun. Since all politics is local, as Tip O’Neil’s Dad taught him, local politics is plain personal. Issues rarely distinguish candidates as much as the personalities that everyone in the community knows. Local politics rarely has anything to fight about other than development projects because government in the UsofA is divided up roughly as follows:
Essential services are what Local Government is all about. Police, Fire, Schools, and all the stuff that we rely on every single day are what matters here. Most of the roads we drive on are local, as are the parks we visit.
Capital investment is generally what State governments do best. That includes big universities and other projects that simply require too much investment for a local unit to do. Over the long haul, they set the policies like education that can also be defined as investment.
The Federal government is really all about insurance. In the end, they are the social security, foreign security, and other pooled risk that would be too difficult for anyone to take on by themselves.
If this sounds too simplistic, you’re right. It’s not by any means a comprehensive list of what governments at various levels do. However, when the units of government stray too far away from these goals, they often find themselves in some trouble. For example, local government often gets involved in development, an area often maxes out their bonding authority fast. States are better suited for this sort of thing, since they have the capacity, which sets up a contest between distant “experts” and local people who are the most affected. This is the most common thing to bubble over into a contentious local election that is based on a real issue.
If you look at taxation around the nation, you’ll find that local units run about 3.5% of GDP on average. States run about 7% of GDP, or double the local. The Feds run about 20%, which is to say around double local and state combined. A lot of the money at any level is filtered down to lower levels to do what they do best, but the control of money in the USofA has gotten increasingly top-heavy. Essential services, what local government does best, is clearly at the bottom of a long list.
The result is a quiet election based largely on who is better liked. That may seem a bit sad, but it’s often all we have to go on. Saying that there are issues out there when they aren’t is a very dangerous thing, especially when there are issues that should be raised but aren’t. Pretending that local elections aren’t about personalities is more than just one of those ways in which many people are kidding themselves, it’s very dangerous because it tends to whitewash over the very issues that they believe are supposed to be important.
The real issue, above anything else, is how the money trickling down through all the various levels of government has come to dry up badly. The system we have is set up to equalize the dough available to all the local levels of government, but it also has a tendency to starve them in lean times. In Saint Paul, we’ve responded with a kind of shell-shock, a feeling that whatever crater we’re stuck in is a good place to just stay until the nastiness stops around us. The result is an election as quiet as we can possibly have.
We aren’t likely to stray far from essential services for the simple reason that we’ve having enough trouble keeping the cops, firemen, and schools working. That means the fact that we have little more than personalities at stake is a lot more obvious than usual. That’s OK. Depressions have a tendency to highlight reality in ways that are uncomfortable but ultimately liberating. The real issue? We, in the USofA, have become lousy at delivering the basic infrastructure that makes civilization possible. Maybe we’ll have that debate someday soon.