Friday, September 6, 2013

Missing the obvious questions

Morning Edition had an interview this morning with a member of the Board of County supervisors from Siskiyou County, in Northern California. Michael Kobseff is one of the members who voted in favor of a resolution for the county to secede from its state, along with other counties in northern California and southern Oregon, and form the new state of "Jefferson."

Kobseff's stated objection was the "burdensome regulation" from the state; its one-size-fits-all approach was designed with cities in mind and was running into the ground businesses that were decades old, some were 150 years old.

The interviewer observed that the proposed state included no major cities, no centers of economic growth. Kobseff replied that if the area were freed of burdensome regulation, it would thrive.

I've never been to Siskiyou County. I've never been to California north of San Francisco or to Oregon south of Portland (type casting!). And perhaps Mr. Kobseff is right on target. But there were two questions glaringly missing from the interview.

First, could the supervisor give concrete examples of burdensome regulations? Sometimes regulation is inane. Sometimes regulation is there for a good reason. Sometimes regulations are designed for one setting and cause unnecessary problems in another. Sometimes the claim of "one size fits all" is just a convenient excuse for fighting a regulation that is there for a damn good reason but inconveniences someone.

Inskeep didn't press his guest to move even one step beyond time-worn platitudes. A handful of examples wouldn't have been probative--you'd have to examine them in the context of the overall regulatory system, and you'd have to check whether they weren't being misconstrued or misrepresented.

The other gaping hole in the report concerns the flow of tax dollars. It's been documented numerous times that rural areas pay less in taxes per capita than is spent per capita, at both the federal and state levels. That's not necessarily a wrong thing to do. A road network through a sparsely settled region is going to cost more per capita than a road network through a denser area; we should still have rural roads. And certain forms of poverty are more common in rural than urban areas, so safety-net spending flows in that direction; we should still have a safety net.

But that doesn't mean that there isn't a net flow of tax dollars into rural areas. In my quick search, the one piece I found that disputed the point didn't actually do so. It presented data that federal spending per capita is comparable between urban and rural areas, and usually a little higher in urban. And that may well be true.

But rural counties (like the one where I live) typically have lower average incomes than counties in metropolitan areas (there's plenty of poverty in cities and suburbs, but there are also relatively large numbers of folks with high incomes). If we had to support our comparable levels of spending on our lower incomes, we'd find that level of taxation ... what's the word?

Oh yeah, burdensome.

That's sort of what Inskeep was getting at with his question about the lack of a city in "Jefferson," but he didn't just bury the lede, he left it out entirely.

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