Sunday, June 26, 2011

Honesty in political speak.

The English language can be tricky. I've heard some interesting news stories the last few days that have me thinking about political speech. What gets me irritated about political speech is how words get so twisted, the politicians can deny lying or breaking their political promises by stretching the base meaning of a word far beyond its normal limits.

The first words I want to discuss are "deficit" and "cut." In state politics, the word cut has come to mean we didn't get exactly what we wanted. The word deficit means we planned on spending more than what we are going to take in for taxes. When a state sets a budget (such as in Minnesota or Wisconsin), they set spending every 2 years based on revenue projections from the various state agencies that take care of such things. Because most state constitutions require a balanced budget, each budget cycle can only spend what it is projected to take in. When these budgets are set, they also include a set of future projections based on economic forecasts and whatever other variables the state law dictates be calculated into the budget formula. Minnesota has a "deficit" for the next budget biennium because the last budget projected spending approximately $36 billion dollars, but as this year came into better focus the state was projected to collect approximately $34 billion dollars. In state politics, it's called a deficit. But, if the actual dollar budget were set at the same level from 2 years ago, there is no budget shortfall. Is that a deficit?

On the word cut, it follows a similar vein. We call it a "cut" to a department (education, health and human services) when we don't give as much money to the department as the expected. They could even get more money, but if it isn't as much we call it a cut. Let's say we expected to give education $10 billion dollars this biennium. Let's say last biennium their budget was $8 billion. If we end up giving them $9 billion, they would call that a 10% cut. In reality, they got a 12.5% increase. If you are expecting a 20% raise from work and only get a 5% raise, did work "cut" your pay? By disguising funding under the word cut of a projected increase, we create dishonesty. It is important to know the real dollar amounts - because that then brings accountability.

"Economic Benefit" is another term that makes me crazy. The Vikings stadium continues to percolate to the top of Minnesota politics. We continue to stress the economic benefit. Who benefits? This one gets very complex, but look at a few aspects. If Minnesota/Hennepin County hadn't helped build Target Field, what would have happened? Ticket prices go higher than they are? Players get paid less? After the stadium was completed, the Twins saw a 30% increase in their value (if sold to another owner). So was it worth it?

Education. Well, learning is good, so education must be good. We have to be careful here as well. We can probably all provide anecdotes of bad teachers, bad classes in college, or news stories we've come across about our standing in the world when it comes to education. Cutting education funding alone isn't going to solve this problem. Neither is throwing more money at it. We spend almost $12,000 per student per year in K-12 in the United States. That is a 360% increase since 1960 according to the Department of Education. Are we getting what we pay for? Over 50% of student attending Minnesota State, Mankato have to take remedial math as a condition of enrollment. Over 50% have to take pre-algebra in college. K-12 isn't working. In Minneapolis, the per pupil cost is over $16,000 per student per year, while in Edina the per pupil cost is $12,000 per year.

My point is more money alone isn't going to help. In fact it might not be what is needed at all. I know Edina parents have more resources than Minneapolis parents on average. But $4,000 extra per student is alot of money, and yet students in Edina still perform better. We need a plan, then we can calculate the cost. We need to find a way to get students and parents to understand the value of education. One example, let's stop gearing all of high school to college prep (see above, we can't even do that well). Maybe it is time to bring the trades back into the schools. The average age of a labor force is now over 40 years old. We are going to need people skilled in trades. Maybe it is time to rethink college, reducing the liberal arts education and concentrating more on the needed skills. Perhaps a more integrated approach in college would be beneficial. Whatever the approach, we need to demand results for our tax dollars and not just hand out more money for more of the same.

My overall point here is stop for a moment when you hear political speech and don't let words like "cut," "education," "health care," etc. get you worked up. Instead, try your best to understand it. Look at what both parties are saying. Do some research. And make the best decision you can. Don't jump to conclusions.

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