13 June 2010
"A bill that hurts people"
The government of New York State may shut down tomorrow. That is, it may go into emergency mode while cutting off many resources, including unemployment checks. The state budget is weeks late, and legislators must approve the governor's extender bills in order to keep government functioning more or less normally. Governor Paterson, a lame duck, is trying to cut the budget, while Republicans complain that he won't cut enough and one Democrat, occasional renegade Ruben Diaz, says he won't vote for too many cuts, or for any bill that "hurts people." Diaz's opposition may be enough to sink the latest extender, the contents of which are still being negotiated, given the close margin of Democratic control of the state senate, unless some Republicans decide that Paterson's cuts are adequate compared to the ultimate cut of a shutdown. Diaz's stand raises a question about government in hard times: has government an obligation to ask its dependents to tighten their belts? The other side of the question is whether poor people should be immune to retrenchment when government lacks the means to provide for them? Do the rights of the people to a minimal standard of living trump any apparent limit on state resources? If so, what are politicians to do? Too often they simply dodge the question by borrowing more money, but current conditions force them to answer. If we accept that rights are conferred by the people on themselves through government, then it's government's obligation to clarify when rights have material limits. If the people decide that their rights (in some cases, their necessities) are more than government deems itself capable of providing. what then? Compared with people in other countries, Americans seem reticent about asserting their material rights. When threatened with the sort of cuts Paterson or the Republicans might demand, working-class people in other countries take to the streets, peacefully or not, to make their own demands clear. Who does Ruben Diaz speak for? I can't tell. Some of his constituents may well think it necessary to tighten their belts for a time, but others may not. But the people themselves seem to have little say in this drama until they vote in November, or so most of them assume. Should they really wait so long if the stakes are as high as some say? We don't necessarily have to see Greek-style rioting in the streets or even French-style general strikes to find out where the people stand, but we need to see and hear more than we have now, or else they'll have to content themselves with whatever the party hacks in Albany deliver or withhold.