Sunday, June 05, 2005

Like a Box of Chocolates

Sunday's Commercial Appeal has a column where the editors encourage their readers to vote in a poll to see how to balance the budget for the City of Memphis. On the surface it seems like good idea, but then you look into it and the other ways they could handle this, and you see the shortcomings.

First of all, as Forrest Gump said, this is like a box of chocolates. Someone else has picked the options for you. They've assembled 18 ways to cut some money from the budget or raise revenue. But this is far from a complete list. They don't list employee cuts or salary cuts. Three options are just different ways of saying the same thing. There are a lot of programs that could be cut; public-private boards that could be closed; properties that could be sold. But since the CA is doing the listing, if it hasn't occurred to them or passed whatever test they used, then it's not a possibility. More than a few come directly and only from the Memphis Police Department, and none directly from the bloated and overpaid Mayor's office.

A better way to do this is something I've talked about several times before: The paper could, I repeat could, print a daily or weekly break out of some part of the City's budget document, by department or expenditure, and look at it in some detail. They did this several years ago, listing positions, salaries, duties, etc. It was very informative and let people decide for themselves. They could also list all the many boards, commissions, etc. that infest City government, their members, their duties, their expenses, any revenue streams they control and what they use them for. They could list all the properties the city owns -- like golf courses! -- their value and their purpose.

You get the idea: give people information and let them make up their own minds, rather than make choices for them and then ask them to choose between those choices. It's the illusion of the marketplace: you can have any of a hundred choices of culottes, but you can only wear culottes. What will happen next, of course, is the CA will present the list of their poll results -- because that's what this is -- as "Memphis Has Spoken." It's "what Memphis wants" and you'll get the usual vaporous thinking from the deep minds there about what it means, backed up by guest editorialists who agree with them. Then the paper will proceed to push those changes they agree with as somehow "approved" by Memphians. It's false authority is what it is.

But hey, Internet polls are easy to do and collate, versus lots of research and writing and interviews and digging around.

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