Over the last July 4 holiday, in an infamous moment inspiring public outrage, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was captured on film enjoying a public beach with his family. His family were the only ones on the beach, as the beach had been closed to the public because the state, due largely to a Christie veto, had failed to pass a budget, preventing funds from being disbursed to public parks.
So, Christie was able to enjoy a private family day on the beach at the expense of New Jersey citizens, who had been given no reprieve from their state tax obligations but who, nonetheless, could not access the supposedly public services their taxes were funding.
While some have interpreted this scene as evidence of Christie’s simply no longer caring, we really need to understand it as more than an isolated political scandal. Rather, we need to understand this moment as emblematic of a larger GOP strategy evident not only in the current tax bill but also in other policies, such as healthcare, that involve government spending. And it’s not new to this Presidential administration but rather than an ongoing Republican project this administration adopted.
The dynamic we see at work might best be characterized as a “feed the beast, starve the people” strategy.
It is important to name this dynamic to recognize that the once dominant mantra of Americans for Tax Reform czar Grover Norquist, “Starve the beast,” is no longer the order of the day in conservative politics. Norquist was simply an anti-tax zealot who advocated for withering the state by starving it of revenues.
Now the order of the day is for congressional leaders to use government to enrich themselves while effectively feeding off the people who, as we see in Christie’s beach episode, continue to pay taxes for services they longer receive.
Sometimes this dynamic is masked by seductive tax cuts which actually end up leaving less in taxpayer’s wallets than if their taxes hadn’t been cut, as vital services their taxes used to pay for, working collectively with others’ taxes, get cut.
More obscenely, though, yet more characteristic of contemporary dynamics, is that we the taxpayer to continue paying taxes for fewer and fewer services, as those funds are going to feed the greed of a political class and wealthy elite working hand in hand.
Those of us living in the state of Illinois can explain this dynamic well, having lived it. We have fed the beast and been starved.
Up until last July when Republican legislators finally rebelled against Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and passed a budget, the state had been without a budget for two years and was beyond being on the verge of disaster; the state was and is a disaster, still reeling from a near total crumbling. Social services were gutted at great human expense to seniors, children, and families; and public educational institutions, particularly public universities and colleges, were not receiving their typical allocations, leading to thousands of layoffs and, by extension, higher tuitions and less programs and services.
Keep in mind that all of this happened not because the state didn’t have money. Illinois workers continued to have state taxes deducted from their paychecks, so the state had incoming revenue. Rather, because a budget had not been passed, monies could not be disbursed.
So, Illinois workers continued to pay the same taxes but received far less in public services such as education, healthcare, childcare services, and more, also leading to the unemployment of many state workers, worsening the situation.
Meanwhile, the bills the state wasn’t paying, not because it didn’t have money but because it didn’t have budget, were accruing hundreds of millions of dollars in late fees and interest, for which the taxpayers were on the hook but for which they were receiving no goods and services in return.
Taxpayers are feeding the beast but not getting what they’re paying for. The intensified deficit spending, fueled by recent tax cuts to those least in need, will create a similar dynamic on the national level.
Following in Rauner’s footsteps, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez last April abused her veto power similarly, denying funding to higher education. Though later restored, the loss of funding would have resulted in higher tuitions and less programs across the board in public education.
On the national level, we can see this dynamic in the way the Federal Government has managed the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
Well before Donald Trump announced last October he would completely stop paying the Obamacare subsidies, which helped keep health insurance premiums down and allowed companies to stay in the exchanges, Congress, according to former health insurance CEO J.B. Silvers, had already reneged on its promises to pay subsidies, having paid only 12% of its pledge. The result of Congress not disbursing the taxpayer money allotted for these subsidies, according to Silvers, was severe market de-stabilization that generated higher premiums and drove companies—and thus competition—out of the exchanges.
Again, taxpayers fulfilled their obligations, feeding the beast, but the beastly herd of politicians did not disburse those funds as promised, as they were allocated. Taxpayers feed the beast, and are starved in return.
Even the modest tax cuts the recent Tax Cut and Jobs Act offers to ordinary people—and for the some taxes will increase—promise to result, finally, in a debit. According to the Tax Policy Center, those making between $49,000 and $89,000 will pay about $900 less in taxes. But if insurance premiums rise, if states receive less federal monies causing state and local taxes to rise, if tuition rises at public colleges and universities, then taxpayers will have far less in their wallets.
Still want that tax cut? The unpopularity of the recent Republican bill suggests Americans are ceasing to seduced by tax cuts and realizing the way the Republican beast is feeding on them not just for the enrichment of special interests but for their own individual interests.
Our money collectively works more effectively and efficiently when we pool it together in the form of taxes to pay for services we share, such as education and healthcare.
It seems taxpayers are increasingly aware that they aren’t getting what they’re paying for, that this scam of cutting taxes means average citizens will actually have less in their wallets when Republicans are through slashing funding to our public spheres.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.