Is there a political wildfire that needs to be put out?

IMAGE: Flickr (BY-SA Gila Forest)

RANCHO SANTA FE, Ca., May 19, 2014 – The San Diego area recently made national headlines when it was ravaged by 10 wildfires. In an incredible display of courage and professional skill, firefighters and other first responders overcame strong Santa Ana winds and extremely arid conditions to battle the elements to a draw. The question is whether they will do as well against their next potential adversary; one that can be far more ruthless and cruel than anything Mother Nature can offer: Politicians running for office.

Just as there is a “Red Flag” warning posted when the conditions are ripe for wild fires, there should be a “Green Flag” warning posted in election years when elected officials are inclined to use firefighters and police officers as pawns in their political games to mask fiscal irresponsibility. The threat advisory should be extended to teachers as well as they are also subject to attack.

The reason our firefighters, police officers, and teachers are vulnerable to such abuse is because they are essential members of our society. The first responders keep us safe, while the educators help hone the fundamental skills of our future generations of leaders. Both groups add stability to our society and provide necessary services, which makes them the perfect target for politicians.

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The game of high stakes politics combines chicanery with fear. In an effort to distract attention from the root cause of our economic challenges, politicians are skilled at diverting our attention by sounding alarms that nearly lead us to panic.

How often have you heard politicians suggest that if a certain bond issue doesn’t pass or if taxes aren’t increased, the State will have no recourse other than to lay off firefighters, police officers, and teachers?

Have you ever wondered why no other less-intrusive measures can be taken? Perhaps eliminating spendthrift programs that haven’t delivered upon expected results would be a good starting point. Reducing administrative staff might also be worth considering before cutting essential services. Restricting travel among our public officials to other States and countries might even be appropriate to curb waste although it is difficult to imagine how we could survive without those boondoggle junkets to senseless conventions and foreign lands.

However, that wouldn’t be “politics as usual,” and we wouldn’t feel threatened to capitulate to the demand for more money. No, it makes far more sense to suggest that the firefighters and police officers, who keep us safe, and the teachers, who instruct our children, have their jobs terminated if taxes can’t be raised and bond issues can’t be passed… at least it does to incumbents.

Of course, not every State will experience this ploy this year nor will every politician default to it. However, the odds rise with respect to the economic and political instability of the State (i.e., the greater the instability, the more likely we will be threatened with a reduction in essential services).

Let’s consider California as an example.

California is a microcosm of the United States. If it were a country, its GDP would rank eighth in the world; essentially putting it on par with the Russian Federation without having to annex Crimea to do it. While the Obama Administration has imposed economic sanctions upon Russia with regard to the latter issue, it need not take similar action to disrupt California’s financial performance because the Golden State has demonstrated the ability to curb its own growth without any outside assistance.

Of course, there are outside influences that are willing to help the cause. Texas Governor Rick Perry, looking theatrically studious in his new glasses, visited California apparently to go car shopping. He returned months later with Toyota… not a car, but the entire Toyota Motor Corporation’s U.S. Headquarters, which had resided in California since 1957. This followed a similar announcement by Occidental Petroleum Corporation in February of this year.

Even without Governor Perry’s help, California has been able to decimate its once proud economy. Its unemployment is currently 7.8%, which is nearly 24% higher than the national average. It also boasts a budget deficit of approximately $70 billion.

Speaking of $70 billion: That is roughly what California spends on welfare (by far, the highest amount in the Nation). Its welfare program pays the equivalent to $11.59 per hour, which is more than President Obama’s proposed minimum wage increase of $10.10. As a result, almost 34% of our country’s welfare recipients reside in California even though the State only hosts 12% of our Nation’s population. Correspondingly, Healthcare and Social Assistance represent the second largest industry in the State according to the most recent Census.

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Naturally, Government is California’s largest industry, with about 2.5 million employees. To fund that industry, the State spends about $484 billion of the $414 billion it raises in taxes, fines, fees, etc. Since the first number is larger than the second, California operates at a deficit. This leads to an $11,000+ debt per citizen. When you add that to the National debt per citizen of nearly $60,000, a California resident effectively bears a $71,000 debt on behalf of his or her State and Federal Government. If you distributed the debt among actual taxpayers in California, the number would nearly double.

Then, add the highest personal State income tax rate in the Nation along with the highest fuel tax and the eighth highest combined sales tax rate and, as the saying goes, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

As a result, every few years politicians trot out the tired threat of having to reduce the number of firefighters, police officers, and teachers. Perhaps politicians take their cues from California’s 12th District Representative in Washington, D.C., Nancy Pelosi. In September of 2013, Minority Leader Pelosi told us: “The cupboard is bare. There’s (sic) no more cuts to make. It’s really important that people understand that.”

If that’s true of our Federal Government, it’s plausible that it might also be true of our State Governments. Thus, our elected officials are forced to jettison those who protect us and our property. Perhaps teachers are used as a political trading chip as well so that future generations will remain ignorant enough to embrace this senseless rhetoric.

Republicans occasionally use this threat to underscore the need for severe budgetary cuts. Democrats use the threat to rally the support of the associated unions. Neither is serious about actually cutting the forces of these groups; at least, they shouldn’t be unless they also have a plan to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of these critical resources.

Interestingly, the Constitution of the United States provides excellent guidance with respect to how our States should address the issue of fiscal responsibility. Article I, Section 8 describes the purposes for which taxes may be collected and applied. The two major responsibilities are “to provide for the common Defence (sic) and general Welfare of the United States.”

What if States were to apply those same standards? (Note: This is not to imply that our Federal Legislative Branch actually complies with these limitations or even pays deference to the fact that they exist; it only is meant to suggest that the limitations have merit.)

Firefighters, police officers, and other first responders clearly “provide for the common defense” of our persons and our property. The recent wildfires in the San Diego area represent a perfect example of the incredible value these dedicated individuals bring to their communities.

Correspondingly, teachers “provide for the general welfare” of our children, our communities, and our future. Can our educational system be improved? Yes, but don’t place the blame on the majority of the teachers who have to operate within it. Reserve that criticism for the administrators and organizations that have lost sight of the system’s mission to do what’s in the best interest of the students from an educational perspective.

Instead of feigning an attack on firefighters, police officers, and teachers this time, perhaps California’s political leadership will try to identify true areas of waste as well as projects which fall short of their promise. One shining example would be the debacle surrounding its high-speed rail project.

The original project was to provide a high-speed rail system that would transport people between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 2 hours and 40 minutes. A referendum was passed based upon these promises and the economic and environmental benefits they would provide.

Unfortunately, the estimated cost of the system has skyrocketed from $33 billion in 2008 to a current price of $68.5 billion. Its route has also been revised to include the Central Valley. This necessitates a “blended system” that incorporates the use of old track and commuter trains which, in turn, prevents the system from delivering the 220 mph service the referendum promised.

In review: the high-speed rail will cost more than twice the amount of money the voters approved, it won’t run directly between the cities the voters were told, and it will be anything but high-speed. Yet, “the powers that be” will try to pretend the changes are meaningless and generally reflect the will of the People as witnessed by their passing of the original referendum.

In the meantime, firefighters and police officers will have to beg to fund the assets and resources they need to “provide for the common defense,” and serious teachers will have to buy their own supplies and volunteer their time to “provide for the general welfare” of the students our State and local governments have abandoned.

Last week, California witnessed professionals in action: Firefighters who risked their own lives to protect the property and lives of others and police officers who blocked roads and patrolled evacuated neighborhoods to protect the property and lives of others. Yet, they are likely to be used (along with teachers) as political pawns as the November elections draw near by politicians who seem more inclined to protect their own property and lifestyles than those of their constituents.

Democrats have been the majority party in California for over forty consecutive years. Republicans enjoy similar longevity in other States. Barring criminal prosecutions, blatant ethics violations that aren’t swept under the rug, or unbiased redistricting, it is almost impossible to unseat a majority incumbent in these States.

Top Two initiatives will only make a difference if independent voters can be lured to participate in Primary elections. Otherwise, election cycles will only remind us of the movie Groundhog Day.

Perhaps we can take a page from the playbooks of our valiant first responders: Recognize that we are up against a political force of Nature that is running out of control; develop a strategy of containment; pray that ordinary citizens listen to reason and exercise common sense; and ultimately, “put out” the elected officials who have been burning through our tax dollars.


A Civil Assessment has been designed to serve as an Op-Ed forum for you. You are invited to offer your opinion and to discuss your position in the Comment Section. Please be sure that your “assessments” remain “civil” so that they may earn the respect of others.


TJ O’Hara provides nonpartisan political commentary every Tuesday on The Daily Ledger, one of One America News Network’s featured shows (check local cable listings for the channel in your area or watch online at 8:00 PM and Midnight PM Eastern / 5:00 and 9:00 PM Pacific. His segment appears about 35 minutes into the program.

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TJ OHara
T.J. O'Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors. In 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States. Along the way, he earned the first Presidential endorsement of the Whig Party since the 1850s, his website was archived by the Library of Congress for its historic significance, and he won the first on-line “virtual” Presidential election (conducted by We Want You) by a commanding 72.1% and 72.7% over Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, respectively. His column explores our Nation’s most pressing issues, challenges conventional thinking, and provides an open forum for civil discussion. Learn more about TJ at his website and connect with him on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube and Twitter (@tjohara2012). To order his books, go to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords or Sony Reader.
  • Jonathan Strackman

    As a public school teacher, thank you very much for this week’s editorial. While I live in reality and understand that there are some bad teachers, the across the board attacks on us, and use of us as pawns, is very disheartening. And often times the problem with education is systemic and found within all the stakeholders. It is far from it being primarily the teachers fault.

    The point you made is a similar one I’ve made to fellow teachers across the political divide when they spout rhetoric such as “Republicans don’t care about you teachers” or “Democrats screw with education too much”. I always ask them, “When so and so was in power and talked such a good game about us teachers (and had teacher’s union money and support), what exactly did he/she do for us?” Usually the question is followed by a lot of silence and then a piece of overly simplistic partisan rhetoric.

    Many of us teachers have answers to the problems, but resist speaking out for worry of retribution or simply the problem that it falls on deaf ears.

    • Thank you for your comment. Mr. Strackman.

      I agree that the vast majority of our teachers really do want to deliver a quality education to our children. Similarly, our firefighters and police officers are willing to put themselves in harms way every day to allow us to live more safely. It is time for our elected officials to stop treating these professions as mere pawns in their political game.

      As you may be aware, I facilitated corporate turnarounds for over 25 years. One of the techniques I employed was the use of Dr. Deming’s Quality Circles. While our education system is far from perfect, as you have suggested, I believe many of our teachers know how to fix it. Unfortunately, they are rarely given the chance to provide meaningful input.

      Our first responders face similar challenges. They know what assets and resources they need, but they are handcuffed to budgetary practices that make place most of those things out of reach. Bureaucrats control the purse strings and force out first responders to beg for support through laborious grant applications, etc.

      One has to wonder what it will take to get our elected officials to understand the nature of the problem they’ve created. It would be interesting to see if they grasped its magnitude if their home was on fire, but the firefighters required them to submit applications so that a determination could be made as to whether their home was selected as a “priority.”

      In any event, thank you again for your comment and for what you do for our children.

  • Eric N Keya Erickson

    Mr. O’Hara, as you’ve pointed out before, it is ultimately the people who are responsible for the terrible state of things you’ve outlined above. We the people must ultimately start paying attention to what’s going on and decide that change is needed. I’m not sure what it will take to make that happen, short of a long-term, nation-wide blackout. Maybe if there were no electronic entertainment, people would start paying attention to what was going on around them?

    The conditions you’ve described also exist here in the Northwest, although not to the degree they do in California (yet). I’ve lived in both Republican and Democrat stronghold states, and both have their advantages and disadvantages. Before moving to Oregon, I lived in Idaho, a distinctly Republican state. While people there generally have a large amount of personal freedom, services are severely lacking in many areas. For example, the roads are in terrible shape year-round, from potholes in the summer to ice and snow in the winter. While freeways are usually cleared off in the winter, other roads, including city streets, generally are not, making for dangerous driving conditions.

    I’ve also lived in both Washington and Oregon, both Democrat-run states. While I currently live on the “red” side of Oregon, I grew up on the “blue” side of Washington. Both states have most of their populations in the west, where more people vote Democrat, and therefore both states are run by Democrats.

    The area that I’m from, Grays Harbor, has been suffering from economic decline since the mid 1980’s, due to environmental over-regulation and political shortsightedness, and despite having a better natural port than any found in Puget Sound (not to mention a day closer to Asia than those ports). The primary industry up to the 80’s was timber, until someone decided (incorrectly) that the spotted owl was being threatened by the activity, and millions of acres of forest were basically closed. Thousands of people lost their jobs in the timber industry alone, and of course this flowed over into the service sector, real estate, and so forth. Still, some stubborn businesses held on for nearly a decade, until short sighted local politicians saw a tax boon in allowing Wal Mart to build a store. Wal Mart is still thriving today, while the vast majority of local businesses have disappeared. City councils complain that store owners aren’t keeping their storefronts looking nice, while store owners complain that taxes are too high and the city won’t do anything to bring in more customers. I learned much of this when I ran for city council in the city of Hoquiam 9 years ago. I also learned that the city council was still very shortsighted and that the citizens largely didn’t care. Average attendance at city council meetings was less than 10 people. Several of the more well-to-do businessmen have attempted to bring in more business and industry. In one instance, a local man wanted to build an oil refinery, but couldn’t get the state to even begin looking at it, due to “environmental concerns.” I guess the state was too busy working on legalizing marijuana.

    As my brother, who lives in California told me yesterday, “Washington is the new California.”

    • Thank you for your comment, Mr. Erickson.

      As you suggest, the ultimate responsibility lies with the People. We have the power to change the composition our our representation. We need not default to a majority rule by Democrats or Republicans. In fact, given their respectively pathetic records (as you have witnessed first hand), one might assume that we would have learned by now.

      Every election in which the status quo is maintained, we are merely reaffirming the accuracy of the Definition of Insanity. There is absolutely no reason why any State’s Republican majority cannot find a way to provide social services that inure to the general welfare of the public (i.e., build and maintain roads, etc.). There also isn’t any reason that a State’s Democratic majority cannot understand that the concept of “general welfare” is distinctly different from the creation of massive welfare programs.

      Most State Constitutions have language that defines Government responsibility in alignment with “police power” (which has very little to do with “police” within the context that the word is normally used). It means that a State has the power to legislate those laws and regulations that provide for the public health, safety and general welfare of the individuals who reside within the State or are visiting it.

      To the degree that a law could uniformly protect the health of the State’s residents or guests, the Government may be involved. The same could be said for laws that touch upon the safety and general welfare of those same individuals. If State Governments restricted their authority as prescribed, they would probably not experience the deficits they have grown so proficient at creating.

      REAL public servants, like firefighters, police officers, and teachers, would also not have to scramble for funds. Having worked with both first responders and educators, I can assure you that they are regularly denied the assets and resources they need to do the job that is expected of them. It is particularly galling with respect to first responders who have to forgo technologies, etc. that would help preserve property and lives because of a convoluted funding process that involves grant applications, etc.

      In effect, the People are denied the most fundamental protections they should be afforded, while their representatives travel about and are supported by generous staffs to make their political lives more enjoyable.

      Then again, as you said, it is ultimately the voters’ fault. Let’s hope the trend begins to change in November.

      Thanks you for your comment.

  • Hans Ohff

    Since our minds cannot predict their own advance, civilization’s progress depends upon making the most of the circumstances we face.

    • Thank you for your comment. I think I’ll keep my “Hans Ohff” that one. :o)

  • Thank you for your comment, Mr. “Dainjer.”

    I agree with you. The ability to be able to communicate successfully is an extremely important skill in today’s world. That is one of the reason that critical thinking is also so important. It helps individuals learn how to think before they speak.

  • Amanda Nevada

    While the liberty school regards majority decisions of law as desirable, it also recognizes that majority decisions may not make good law.