Of libraries, “tea”, and the role of government in American society

As I was reading yet another letter in The Advocate berating the East Baton Rouge Parish Library Board of Control’s decision to construct a new $19 million library downtown, I began contemplating why we were having the same argument over and over with only the participants varying to a certain degree. I think the reason is basically that the same political differences I’ve discussed previously–that we are a state and country divided between two political philosophies of conservatism/libertarianism and liberalism–are rearing their heads here.

Here are the actual facts of the matter: 1) an 11.1 mill property tax to support library operations was passed in 2005, including funds for maintenance, supplies, staff, and capital outlay and improvements; 2) the library system determined that a portion of those monies for its FY 2011 budget should be allocated toward the construction of a new library in the downtown area to replace the Centroplex (yes, I know people call it “River Center” now, but it will always be the Centroplex to me) branch; 3) on November 16 of this year, a public hearing was held by the city-parish Metro Council on the mayor-president’s proposed 2011 budget, at which a large number of “tea” party proponents voiced opposition to the Library Board’s request to transfer monies to the Centroplex project from the Library Special Fund; 4) the proposal is now in limbo until the Council votes on the mayor’s budget on December 8.

The Centroplex library project has really fallen victim to the political trend of opposing government in a broad sense and the idea of government spending. The project has become a poster child for that boogeyman of the right, “wasteful government spending.” Why? Well, probably more than anything else, it appears to be an unfortunate case of low-hanging fruit. “tea” party activists and advocates in the Baton Rouge area have seized upon the issue of construction of a new downtown library branch to push an agenda of reducing the scope of government and the tax burden on citizens.

In a broad political context,  it appears that all of this is related to “tea” party sentiment stirred up by recent elections which has convinced people that government actually spending money is bad–the only worse thing than government actually having money in the first place. Because it’s not “their” money, it’s “your” money, et cetera, et cetera. Here’s the thing:  government entities spend tax monies every day and not always in specific ways with which individuals or groups of red-shirt-wearing folks may concur. Citizens voted to fund the library system five years ago, but they didn’t vote to be able to hold a referendum on how the money the system is allocated is to be spent. This particular expenditure has been examined and studied for (four, according to the Library Board) years and eventually someone had to make a decision about how to enhance services available to residents of downtown Baton Rouge. The reason that we have boards and agencies and presidents and legislatures is so that we don’t have to make all of these decisions ourselves; that’s why this state and country are not a literal democracy. If you don’t like the decisions people have made you can feel free to exercise your right to vote. But don’t expect that everyone will agree with you. Not everyone is opposed to government spending simply because it is there, and that’s a good thing. Contrary to what the libertarians and conservatives would like us to believe, government serves many useful functions we would be hard-pressed to do without.

Yes, we could privatize pretty much everything that local and state governments do and we could eliminate the commons. We could use this economic crisis as an excuse to eliminate public parks, public schools, public libraries and all other things that governments provide for the common good. We could turn over the regulation of industries, law enforcement, fire control and prevention, zoning and planning, public utilities like water and wastewater treatment, the maintenance of roads and bridges, and environmental and wildlife protection to private companies and turn this into a society that is much more like what Ayn Rand envisioned.

The funny thing about wishing for things is that sometimes you get them. So those of you reading the first few sentences of this paragraph and thinking that this would be a utopia should probably reflect on the sort of thing that happens when private corporations are allowed to operate in an unregulated or under-regulated environment. In 2001, energy giant Enron files for bankruptcy after having lied about its financial condition, putting tens of thousands of people out of work and doing massive financial damage to individual investors and retirement funds that had purchased Enron stock believing it to be a “blue chip” firm, while enriching the executives who sold off their own stock before it became essentially worthless. In 2007-2008, investment banks who had purchased bundles of high-risk mortgages grouped with some lower-risk mortgages, which allowed the bundle itself to be rated as low-risk found themselves up the creek as borrowers began defaulting on these loans. This situation, again a result of a virtual “hands-off” approach to the regulation of investment banking by the SEC and the elimination of barriers between commercial and investment banks, has led to the wonderful economic hole from which we (and much of the rest of the Western world) are still trying to emerge. Needless to say, this crisis has enabled the very few (who run the institutions which caused this crisis and were given a substantial amount of public money to remain solvent) to thrive and put millions out of work and on the street. In April 2010, a mine explosion killed 29 miners at a coal mine in West Virginia owned by Massey Energy, which had been cited on numerous occasions for safety violations. In this same month, the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 men and causing irreparable damage to the economies and ecosystems of the surrounding states. The drilling rig, run by British Petroleum, owned by Transocean, and built by Halliburton, all multibillion-dollar companies, was not maintained or even constructed properly, and the resulting death and destruction really speaks for itself.

So, yes, it’s true that we could hand the keys to the kingdom to private interests and whittle our government down to essentially nothing. But who really benefits from this? The same private companies that really have no vested interest in ensuring your safety or economic well-being; by law, they are mandated to maximize profits for their shareholders. If that means bending a few environmental laws or greasing the palms of a few inspectors, it harms no one–at least until something like the above incidents occurs, and then, despite all of our protestations about how free markets are the ultimate arbiter of success and failure, the taxpayers are accountable for the resultant financial chaos and in many cases families are left to grieve and care for those who are literally wounded or dead.

The vast majority of the “tea” party supporters are people who simply fail to recognize that they’re being taken for a ride by people who don’t care about what happens to them or to anyone else. They’ve bought into this idea that, somehow, less government is better for everyone. It isn’t. The truth is that government institutions are no better or worse than private ones. The difference is that government institutions are accountable to the people, directly and through statutes, regulations, and the courts, while private companies are accountable to only their shareholders (and even then only when shareholders actually know what the individuals running the show are doing). A government that works can create a society that we can be proud and happy to be a part of.

Is there waste, fraud, and abuse in government? Sure. Is the public library proposal for downtown Baton Rouge an aspect of this? Based on the information I have seen, particularly the discussion here and the presentation here, the answer is clearly “no.” The Library Control Board has followed its normal procedures throughout this process, reviewed all proposals, and determined that the needs of the community to be served by the new library would be best served by a new facility, designed from the ground up to provide equivalent services and equipment to other branches and adequate parking to serve the needs of the citizens. Further there simply is no way to provide the on-site parking by renovating the existing building or to renovate the site and meet the goals of the facility (again as an equivalent to other parish branch libraries) in a more cost-effective manner than by demolishing the existing facility and building a new one. The Library Control Board does not appear to have a history of wasting money or using it in a frivolous manner, and I have no reason to believe that this is the case here. So the only argument that really leaves to the opponents of this construction is that they are opposed to libraries in general or opposed to anything that government does which does not provide a direct benefit to them. To that I can only say that one of the roles of government has always been to ensure that public resources are directed in such a way as to benefit all of its citizens, not just the ones who wear the brightest colors or complain the most vociferously about an issue.