November 22, 2012

There's much to be thankful for

Colin Read, Everybody's Business

— In this week of thanks, there are so many reasons to be grateful.

As I write, we have enjoyed a week of wonderful weather, with temperatures peaking into the 50s and the sun shining brightly. We are in the tail end of November, with winter solstice just a month away. Yet, Lake Champlain is a few degrees warmer than normal, and there have been some surprise days that allow us to finish those outside projects we have delayed. Such a luxury is truly a blessing.

I am grateful my job allows me to teach and conduct research in finance and economics, and to pursue economic development in my community. I am grateful we can grow grapes. I sometimes feel I am too fortunate, given that one in six of our labor force remains unemployed or underemployed.

We can be grateful for our loved ones, and remain hopeful they will have a good year next year. I wish this upon our entire nation. In my 53 years, I have never experienced a nation so divided. I’m not even sure that the 1960s were as divided as we are now. At least then, there seemed to remain hope for a brighter future, and there was a tradition in Congress to work together, even if visions may have diverged wildly. We do see some sprouts of cooperation, following a divisive election. Let us keep our fingers crossed.

And let us be thankful that the dreadful election is finally over. I can’t imagine anybody enjoying that spectacle. I am grateful that the North Country campaigns were respectful and focused on issues, even if some outside groups did not.

Our region has remained quite resilient. We can be thankful for the spirit of hard work that rural economies often enjoy. Our economy is strategically linked to Canada’s, an economy that has remained one of the strongest of the developed nations in the world.

After four years of a Great Recession and a reluctant recovery, I am glad to see that some stimulus funds are actually finding their way into renewing some of our highway infrastructure. Our major roads have never looked so good.

There are also aspects for which I wish I could be thankful. Our communities are under siege from within. In an effort to stem an exodus of entrepreneurs and young people, our state has imposed a cap of 2 percent on local tax-revenue growth Our inflation rate has been hovering below 2 percent for the last six months, so even the tax cap of 2 percent represents a real tax increase this year. It would take decades and decades of actual tax reductions just to bring our taxes in line with averages we see in other states. Yet, most of the myriad taxing authorities in this state still view a maximum 2 percent increase as their effective minimum increase.

I would like to see some entities actually propose a reduction of spending rather than a slower increase of spending, if only as a symbol of the degree to which people are hurting. I realize elected officials want budgets to grow, but I can also imagine many ways in which we can share services or delay governmental gratification. Does a town really need an expensive camera truck to inspect underground pipes? Is it inconceivable that the municipalities county-wide could not share such a truck? Presumably, it would not be used every day by one town.

Better yet, could we not contract out to the private sector when we need such a service? I don’t know all the details of this municipal need, but I do know that towns produce budgets in isolation. As a consequence, it is likely that our individual town and school district budgets are rife with redundancies that would not exist if there was a mandate that government actually cooperates and works together across artificial lines drawn on maps centuries ago.

I wish I could be grateful for a nation that is able to think more strategically about our economic future. We have become too self-indulgent by favoring consumption over investment, or through investment in areas that may be fun and interesting, but which will not sow the seeds of a sustainable future for our children. Countries like Germany think much more strategically about the education they provide their children. And, they have developed models of enterprise where labor and management work together rather than try to drive each other into the ground.

We don’t have to look too broadly to see all kinds of great ways things are done elsewhere, from healthcare to education, public infrastructure to private incentives to invest in future production, and for a government that works for the next generation.

I wish I could thank government that can compromise in the best interest of the entire nation, not the collection of our special interests. I would be most thankful if we can recognize change has become imperative, and our prosperity will demand something from each of us. Economists say “there’s no free lunch.” Our Thanksgiving meal is over, and it is time to hit the treadmill.

Colin Read contributes to and has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave Press. He chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh.