A Princeton University professor’s column in USA Today has been generating a lot of social media buzz in Kentucky, and it’s no wonder.
Steven Strauss, a visiting professor at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, wrote Thursday that if President Donald Trump wants to run government more like a business, he should shut down the state of Kentucky.
“It’s an embarrassing drag on our nation’s budget and economy,” Strauss wrote, noting that in fiscal 2016 the federal government collected only $34 billion in taxes from Kentucky but spent $89 billion on the state’s residents.
“If Kentucky can’t live on a budget, it should be shut down,” Strauss wrote. “That’s the way we’d do it in the private sector. Given the GOP’s commitment to running America like a business, Kentucky shouldn’t get a dime more from the federal government than it pays to the federal government in taxes.”
By contrast, he noted, the federal government collected $109 billion in taxes from Massachusetts last year, but spent only $62 billion — realizing a $47 billion profit.
Kentucky’s median household income is $44,000 a year — $10,000 less than the national average and about $25,000 less than in Massachusetts, which has a poverty rate half that of Kentucky.
“Kentucky’s not only an economic loser, its leading representatives in Washington are disruptive and arrogant,” Strauss wrote, mentioning Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul by name.
“Further, if the GOP in Congress is serious about shrinking government, it shouldn’t be led by those whose states would be devastated by such shrinkage,” he wrote, urging that McConnell be removed as Senate majority leader because “the private sector wouldn’t put a drug addict in charge of a pharmacy.”
Kentucky isn’t alone as a national laggard, Strauss noted, mentioning three other poor states run by Republicans: Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. He could have listed several more. “Whatever solution we find for Kentucky should also be rolled out to these other low-productivity states,” he wrote.
Strauss’ column is a work of satire, but there is a lot of truth in it. Republicans like to brag about the wisdom of their economic policies, which in practice work only for the wealthy elite.
The truth is that “liberal” states are more economically successful than “conservative” states, which tend to be less educated and have higher poverty rates. (Ideology is a better indicator than party label, because Democrats and Republicans largely switched ideological identities in the 1960s. Republican states such as Kentucky used to be led by Democrats, but their policies have always been conservative.)
Strauss writes that Kentucky’s Republican politicians “aren’t interested in getting their state off the federal gravy train, or explaining to Kentucky voters just how much their state is dependent on the federal government.”
He is only partially correct. GOP politicians seem fine with taking away constituents’ health insurance and cutting safety-net benefits for poor people. That’s because they know those suckers will keep voting for them anyway, because Fox News and talk radio have convinced them that liberals are evil.
If there is one reliable constant in modern American politics it is that poor, under-educated conservatives will happily vote against their own economic interests. But you have to wonder: if Republicans actually succeeded in enacting the disastrous policies they promote, would their non-wealthy supporters eventually wake up?
Government should be run in an efficient, economically responsible manner. But it should not be run “like a business” because it is not a business.
A business’ only responsibility is to make a profit for shareholders. (Many businesses used to think they also had responsibilities to their employees, customers and communities, but those quaint notions all but vanished during the “greed is good” 1980s.)
Government exists in America to promote the general welfare and the public good. Its goal should be to protect and enable all citizens, rich and poor, to work toward “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
And that is why Strauss’ outrageous, tongue-in-cheek suggestion about shutting down Kentucky is so on target.
“If the GOP really believes in the snake oil it has been selling us, it’s time to show it,” he writes. “And if not, it’s well past the time for the GOP to stop its empty ranting, which as Shakespeare would have said, increasingly sounds like a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”