Thursday, September 29, 2011

upstate new york: hello?

There are things that are incredibly stupid that we've been doing forever as a society or a government, stuff that is absolutely unjustifiable, nonsensical and there is no discussion of changing it. Why? Why are we arguing about the controversial stuff when there is so much low lying fruit?

Here is my plan for upstate New York, since you asked (did you ask?):

1. Clean up the corruption in local and state government, particularly local
2. Get rid of overlap and inefficiency and too many jurisdictions and agencies
3. Change the structure of government / reduce the number of elected officials
4. Put every single transaction of almost any kind online for the world to see
5. Set up a system to make sure people who work for government are actually competent
6. Undo the education system
7. Killing the goose that laid the golden egg: not so nice to live here... no more ugly

Right now, we waste money on duplicated services. We waste money by pumping money into corrupt and incompetent local governments who will do stupid things with it that actually harm the economy and look ugly. We prevent business investment by allowing incompetent and corrupt people to run the government. Most of the kids are learning to live in a world that doesn't exist anymore. The labor force is not trained to live in the world as it is, to put in economic terms. We are crushing the human spirit, to put it in emotional terms. We're making nice places into ugly places. We're squandering the environment.

The economic environment is stiffing. The physical environment is substandard, unhealthy and unpleasant. The government is corrupt and incompetent. We drive too much.

We here in upstate New York are only still breathing because downstate is a real economy with real value. As long as the leeches that run the government can suck blood out of New York City, they don't care that we don't actually have an economy here. We're parasites.

I'll drop a couple of points which I may come back and expand... or not:

a) The governor's initiative to pump money into the economy through his "Open for Business" strategy is likely to make the economy worse, rather than better and is completely counter productive, like foreign aid to corrupt third world countries.
b) You can make sure official are competent while still maintaining democracy, elected officials making decision, through a combination of reduction in the number of elected positions combined with overlapping jurisdiction over appointed positions.  
c) Stop paying for schools with local property taxes: replace with income tax. Get rid of town courts: send all cases to appointed professional judges. No village or small city police: increase the state police. No county sheriff. No town highway departments:  consolidate county and state highway departments. 
d) People like their towns and villages. They can continue to exist as community boards with drastically reduced power and budget. In my scheme, local government for small entities doesn't have anything they really have to do, except some smaller role in zoning and planning. Under my scheme, with voting representatives on planning and zoning from outside the jurisdiction, appointed by a different body, zoning and planning would not be under the town community board directly. So what would the community board do? New stuff... like offer payroll services to small businesses, or community college courses, or child care, or tutoring, or public education in other forms, or community development, or whatever... something that isn't happening already. Highway, court, assessment, police: they won't have any authority over that stuff. 

I could write up each one of those as an entry... and I might.

This one drives me crazy: paying for public education through local real estate taxes. Real estate taxes are the most subjective tax we have. You are asking someone to estimate the value of a property and base a tax on that number. When you have a subjective tax and empower someone to make a decision, you are begging for the system to be misused and unfair. It's inevitable.

It's also expensive to collect this tax, since you have to have so many systems in place to prevent the assessors from gaming the system. As much as you spend to stop them from gaming the system, they still will game it.

Real estate taxes are a progressive, maybe, when you compare poor and middle class people but they are entire regressive when you compare middle class and rich people. If I earn $70,000 a year and have a house worth $300,000 of which I have $100,000 in equity and few other assets, then I am paying a wealth tax on 300% of my wealth. If I am a billionaire with 3 billion in assets including a 30 million dollar estate, I am paying a wealth tax on 1% of my wealth.

Then each town is paying for its own individual schools with its real estate revenue, at least in general in New York. The tax rates then vary widely, advantages for some with some local cash cow while hurting the districts that can least afford it. You get places with high taxes and good schools where it only makes sense to live if you have school age children. So a lot of people leave when their kids grow up. And not too many 20 year old college grads want to live there. And then the rates have to go even higher. And you have the wrong labor force locally. You get economic segregation. You get age segregation. You get boring education that isn't working.

Conclusion: paying for public education through local real estate taxes is stupid. 

Next, locally, we have too many agencies doing the same thing in one area. Columbia County, for example, has the same population as Park Slope Brooklyn. In Park Slope how many highways departments are there? How many police forces? How many different phone numbers to call if you have a question about getting a form? How many local government websites? How many agencies to register your dog? How many agencies to transport children to school? How many school districts? How many library systems? How many courts dealing with traffic tickets?

In about every case the answer is one for Park Slope. In Columbia County, in ever case the number is greater than 7, as high as 20. Well, you might say, Park Slope and Columbia County are very different, even if the populations are similar. True. But administration and oversight are not dependent on geography or landscape.

Conclusion: there are tremendous advantages in terms of quality of service, efficiency, and accountability by getting your head out of you ass.

Okay, I solved the problem of the moribund upstate economy. That was easy. Just kidding: I will need three or four more blog posts, then it will be fine. But I got off to a nice start.

No really, there are a lot of simple things you could do... and I'll get back to this in another blog post if anyone is interested... hello? anyone? crickets?

Now, one last point. This last one is a PHILOSOPHICAL or HISTORICAL point. If you go and look at the debate between the Federalists and the anti-Federalists, you will see that they spent a lot of time talking about logistics and process. I mean both sides.

If you have a supreme court with judicial review, what will happen? How many on the court? Serve for life or a set term? (Side note: the anti-Federalist were sure right about that lifetime tenure thing: bad idea. Supreme court justices should have 8 year terms, then they can be re-appointed or not by the president and confirmed by the senate. Constitutional Amendment needed.)

They believed that if you rig up the numbers and duties right, the system will either work or not work. It's a system. People are people and human nature won't change. You have to get the right balance of interests. You have to use human nature as it is, not as you wish it were. Trust no one.

The same principles apply to the problems now with upstate New York. Corruption? Putting everything online is a good start. Then some real ethics boards, with oversight over the ethics boards.

Incompetence? Again, systematic controls, with layers of authority... I have to think about this in detail but in principle I don't see why you can't control of screw ups like you do corruption.

That's enough. Thanks for reading my thoughts.

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