Starve the Beast 
by Barbara Sumner Burstyn
November 25, 2003

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A media leak in New Zealand has given us non-political types an interesting insight into the workings of a political party retreat. For New Zealand's centre-right party Act, humour is clearly a big part of it. But I was looking for something more; a hint of serious political debate from the party that positions itself as the low-tax, less-government saviour of New Zealand. Instead we heard of a plan to use stunts and cartoons to generate media attention, a call to define the party as a person, and a publishing pitch for a kids' book about a crusading yellow plastic duck.

So in the absence of anything (at least in the media) resembling intelligent discussion, here's a little analysis of my own. For the hard-working and fiscally responsible, low tax is an alluring prospect: More money in your pocket to spend however you choose.

But what really happens when you cut taxes? Known internationally as starve the beast, a regime of tax cuts requires concomitant cuts to social spending. Certainly we've all been fed the stereotypical image of the system-abusing solo mum or the entrenched unemployed buoyed up by generous welfare payments. But taxes pay for far more than that. They cover diverse programmes, anything from support in schools for intellectually disabled students, perhaps a reading programme here, an adult training programme there, to something as simple as a transport option for the physically disabled, not to mention health services and support for the elderly.

Low-tax ideology is characterized by two things: an obsession with the short term and a me-first mentality. The first works so long as you don't make the correlation between, say, reduced access to preventive healthcare or social programmes and a rise in acute hospital or prison admissions, further down the road. Extrapolate it and our country starts to resemble an undeveloped nation with entrenched social problems that push us to the margins of the global economy.

And as for the me-first mentality, I know the notion that if you earn it you have a right to it makes sense in a left-brain way, but it misses so much of what it means to be human, to be ill or dispossessed, the victim of adverse circumstances or just a member of the community. Low tax also accelerates the demise of equal opportunity, which, contrary to what some on the right believe, is a whole different thing from forcing equal outcomes.

And remember how as kids we were taught to share? In a society as complex as ours, redistribution of some portion of income through reasonable taxation is how adults share.

The Act party will no doubt reply that tax cuts stimulate the economy so we all benefit. In its newsletter it quotes the 7.2 per cent rise in the US economy after its round of tax cuts for the rich. But like a rush of blood to the head, it's a short-term gain that, according to commentators, is unsustainable, comes at a high social price and is riddled with hidden costs that won't hit home till well after the next year's US elections.

But perhaps the most galling thing to Act-minded people must be our Government's $1.97 billion surplus. After all, a deficit is an ideal tool for proving the inefficiencies of government-run social and service networks (and you thought Bush's US$374 billion ($584 billion) deficit was a random thing) and therefore a perfect excuse for a downsized government. But someone has to run what's left. In the US, experience has shown that for services, it's the corporations with the most connections that get the contracts, while for the social network, faith-based providers give you a dose of God with your rations. Essentially you end up with governance by corporation and care by God and all the elected democracy in the world is useless against those two absolutes.

So here's the bottom line. You can't have everything in your knickers at once. Investing in our country, our people and our civic institutions is what makes New Zealand a great place to live. Not a privileged bunch of individually wealthy people taking care of numero uno while their neighbours suffer. Taken to its extreme, the "starve the beast" ethic ultimately starves the humanity in each of us.

So it's no wonder the Act party is frustrated. Its remarkably low membership (who knew it took so few to be considered a viable political party?) and the popularity of the present government must be exasperating. Just as it must be disconcerting to discover that a majority of New Zealanders reject the social Darwinism inherent in low tax, less government.

It seems New Zealanders understand that a reasonable level of taxation makes for a country fit for everyone to live in, that the free market is not the ultimate organizing principle in society, and that radically downsized government is simply an excuse to line the pockets of a privileged few. Or as an African proverb says: A poor man shames us all.

Perhaps I am doing Act a disservice and all this was canvassed in open discussions between lampooning secretaries and planning the yellow-duck takeover of the world. If not, let's hope that big ocean the crusading little yellow duck will float on is a level one.

Barbara Sumner Burstyn is a freelance writer who commutes between Montreal, Quebec and The Hawkes Bay in New Zealand. She writes a weekly column for the New Zealand Herald (www.nzherald.co.nz), and has contributed to a wide range of media. She can be reached at: barb@sumnerburstyn.com. Visit her website to read more of her work: http://www.sumnerburstyn.com/


Other Articles by Barbara Sumner Burstyn


* Smoke and Mirrors: Fatal Weapons in US War Against Reality

* A GM Question or Two

* Hooker Look in Fashion as Porn Becomes de Rigueur

* The Twisted Logic of Mothers Who Abandon Mothering

* Only in America

* We Really are Living on the Dark Side of the Moon

* Viagra for Girls: Medical Light Bulbs Can't Switch off Relationship Woes

* No Room on the Balance Sheet for Truth or Humanity

* Working to Live has Been Overtaken by Living to Work




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