Best-seller to officials: ‘How to Kick a Can Down the Road’
Written by Michael Lewis on September 18, 2013
Congratulations, Miami-Dade, your county hall has preserved our library system via its tried-and-true fiscal policy: kick the can down the road. If we can’t pay now, let someone else pay later.
Libraries will stay open and fully staffed because county hall has raided reserves of $7.8 million, a so-called solution that staves off disaster until reserves are needed or next year’s budget is drawn, whichever comes first.
Then comes another emergency, with no reserves at all to handle it next time. Next year’s library gap is already estimated at $20.
Not to worry, says Commissioner Barbara Jordan, can-kicker extraordinaire: “Let’s worry about next year next year, and deal with this year this year.”
That’s the can-kicker’s mantra: let’s worry about it all later. Maybe something will turn up. And if not, maybe somebody else will take the blame. Besides, I might not be in office when it all blows up.
That’s the brilliant federal strategy that has created our $16.7 trillion national debt – $55,000 for every citizen. It has worked – at least for those who built the debt: many of them have left office and left us the debt.
It’s the same brilliant strategy that built a baseball stadium in town with a debt approaching $3 billion – more than $1,000 for every county resident, both adult and child. That also worked: County Manager George Burgess, who engineered the deal, quit and now runs lobbying for a local law firm.
It’s the same strategy that has hamstrung Miami city hall – the leading local municipal example – by handing employees massive, ballooning retirement packages that the city can’t pay when they come due. To view the natural outcome of this can-kicking, look to Detroit’s bankruptcy.
It’s the same strategy that allowed Miami-Dade officials for years to ignore crumbling water and sewerage systems until federal officials pulled into the open a leaky mess estimated to cost well over $12 billion – nearly $5,000 for every resident – to meet current needs, and those needs grow daily along with escalating construction and population.
The can-kicker’s strategy is foolproof: ignore big real needs that nobody is yelling about and give those shouting loudest whatever they want today – just charge it and let someone else pay for it tomorrow. If we’re lucky – like, if a meteor wipes out the planet – we’ll never have to pay and we’ll never have to worry about those massive hidden but very real needs.
And, if we’re unlucky and the bill falls due, as it did at Jackson Health System several years back?
Well, we can blame it all on some administrator who never told us that the bills would have to be paid sometime by someone – and that someone is us.
Sure, Mayor Carlos Gimenez told commissioners not to kick the library funding can down the road to next year. But come next year we can always say that he didn’t warn us loud enough. Or that he wasn’t forceful enough – meaning that he didn’t pull a gun to keep us from raiding the only cookie jar we have.
Besides, all those library supporters packed the room for the vote, it was after 1 a.m. and what else could a poor commissioner do but raid the future for the present and let someone else do the worrying?
Don’t get me wrong: I love libraries. I grew up in them. I sit surrounded by books as I write. Cutting libraries is unthinkable.
Unfortunately, the unthinkable is what elected officials are supposed to deal with using permanent solutions, not one-shot band-aids.
It was unthinkable that those unpopular Florida Marlins would leave their few fans. So we robbed the future to build them a stadium and now their replacements, the Miami Marlins, have even fewer fans – and we owe billions.
Don’t blame the county alone. Over in the City of Miami, it was unthinkable that any tax money could possibly be held in reserve – reserves the city promised the state it would keep full – when employees wanted raises. This month’s 3% raise, by the way, is for every single employee, regardless of performance, if any. And the reserve fund will be far below the minimum the state required last time the city nearly went bankrupt.
In government, there are so many unthinkables – County Commissioner Javier Souto calls them the parade of the horribles. The solution is generally to not think too much – just keep the loudest voices happy at the time of the latest crisis and kick the can down the road.
Now that libraries are saved for the moment, you can duck into one and read about how our cans have been kicked over and over.
Unfortunately, your commissioners are unlikely to be reading and learning beside you. They’re all too busy at their official can-kickers meeting kicking some more fiscal disasters just down the road.