The vaunted American values of individuality and resourcefulness are in short supply. If this were not so we would be doing more about local government and complaining less.
There is no earthly reason for us to swallow the lies of politicians year after year while we fail to exercise our precious right to know what is being done "or not being done "to improve local government and hold the tax line.
The politicians have handily foisted off the problem on Washington, blaming social and health programs "not defense, of course "for the tax burden. And we have bought into this sleight of hand. But the truth is that property taxes are pervasively unfair and confiscatory in America, and the politicians who could have done something about it are more interested in getting themselves sent to Washington where they can feed at bigger troughs.
The problem is exacerbated by the collapse of the local press. Without the vigilance of an aggressive hometown press developers and others have corrupted local government. In New York State property taxes have risen in recent years at the rate of six percent a year, forcing both the young and the elderly to move to other states for financial security. And yet the politicians get away with blaming Washington for it all.
What can be done? Plenty. But Americans must renew their resourcefulness "and their belief in transparent government " to do it. Transparency is not exclusively a Washington problem, although our diminished press would have us believe it is in order to turn our eyes away from its abject abandonment of Main Street.
This 54-page primer (listen to podcast) should be in the hands of every American who has ever uttered a word about government and taxation, especially journalists who are often educated in the matter by self-serving officialdom. It should be distributed and discussed in our high schools.
It is lucid, canny and illustrative. Kimmet is a journalist as well as a public administration scholar. She asks and answers questions that elude most news stories. This book leaves us with no excuse for believing slogans and ideologies about government.
If citizens are truly alarmed about taxation and ineffective govrnment, whatever their political persuasions, they will make sure they understand Follow the Money. All government is ultimately local; to grasp the issues memorably explained here is to be prepared to grasp them in state capitals and Washington as well.
If the anti-federalist politicians we have just sent to Washington were sincere about tax relief they would have addressed the problem where they come from instead of where they`re going. They had 89,400 chances to do so "that`s how many local governments there are, and there are many more possibilities for corruption and misspending in that aggregate number than in Washington, where there is still a fairly vigilant press.
We don`t have to depend on politicians, we don`t have to wait for elections to make sure government is clean, smart and representative. We can arm ourselves with Kimmet`s book and go to town and city halls and look for answers. We have a right to them, and if we don`t get them, we can resort to our state attorney general for help. We own those town halls, those records, and officials who beat around the bush should have the heat turned up on them. That`s how we`re built as a country, and if Americans themselves don`t exercise their right of inquiry and challenge, it will be easy to draw the conclusion that they don`t like their form of government, because it depends on free inquiry.
But do we want to do this, or are our beliefs and myths as addictive as cocaine? That question haunts this admirable and thoughtfully executed examination of the uses and abuses of our money, even though the book itself is silent about such matters.
Television gives us the pernicious impression that we know things we don`t know, because it deals in sound bites. It conveys a conviction that everything is easy to grasp and that we know all we need to know. We don`t, and our politics shows it. If we all read Follow The Money, if we require our high school students and even our citizenship classes to read it, we would at least have a notion of how much we don`t know or understand. And this is, after all, the purpose of education.
We probably don`t need all 89,400 governments " in New York State we almost certainly don`t need as much overlapping government as we have " but their number and overlap is only one cause of overspending our money. It`s easy to see why blaming the federal government for our ills is a half-baked, diversionary and successful ploy. Property taxes are beating some of us to a pulp, but only some are confiscatory; others are lax. Generalizations "sound bites "mislead, and that is why it has been so handy for politicians to trick us into scapegoating Washington. Another reason, of course, is the precipitous decline of a vigilant press.
There are many ways to corrupt local government. Developers are a major problem. They bribe officials, do favors, make jobs for the relatives and friends of officials "and in most cases the over-development that results is a primary cause of over-taxation. The developers` argument that they create jobs is ephemeral. Their argument that they broaden the tax base is bogus, because the strain they put on communities usually leads to higher taxes. We would do better, much better, to diversify the job base, create new businesses and technologies, and make better use of existing housing stock. The conservatives` cry for an ownership society, heard so often during the Bush years, has wound up as the foreclosed society, and the foreclosed society is overwhelming police, fire, highway and other services.
The late I.F. Stone would have loved Ms. Kemmet`s modest guide. He published I.F. Stone`s Weekly for decades, following the paper trail and inveighing against the kind of blabbermouth journalism we endure today. Skulduggery and just plan lousy management both leave a trail we can all follow. This is Ms. Kemmet`s premise. I think, had he lived to see the Internet and smart phones, Stone would have loved the resulting possibilities of citizen journalism. He was always dour about the journalistic elite, the club.
What I envision for Follow the Money, as a retired journalist who always preferred local reportage to big-shot journalism in Washington, are groups of retired people using the handbook to form genteel vigilante groups inquiring into local government and exchanging their findings on the Internet and in group discussions. We don "t need journalists to do this job, and in any case, they`re not doing it. But we have thousands of retired accountants, doctors, lawyers, teachers, writers, and tradesmen who are qualified in their own ways to become watchdogs of local government. They can and should become familiar figures in our town and city and county offices. Too bad if they`re considered an annoyance. Democracy is a pesky annoyance "to those who intend to manage it.
There isn`t a community in the country that can`t do this, and here they have the ideal tool to show them how. Inquiry is fun. It`s detective work, and we can all do it. And the result will be better government and, in all likelihood, lower taxes. Without this forensic foraging we will continue to elect hoodwinking politicians who will promise us Arpege and give us toxic waste.
The publisher, AIER, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, publishes a wide range of public interest material which can be found at www.aier.org. This handbook is attractive and well structured and indexed. If Americans are as concerned about honest government as they say they are, Follow the Money should be a best-seller.
Djelloul Marbrook is a retired newspaperman. His second book of poems, Brushstrokes and Glances, will be published by Deerbrook Editions on December 20, 2010. His first book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. It won the International Book Award in 2010. His novella, Artemisia`s Wolf, will be published by Prakash Books of India in December. His novella, Saraceno, was recently published as an e-book. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com