They Don't Care What We Think, And Yet They're Begging For More Money

There is a tax referendum on the ballot this November in Fairfax County.  If it passes, the Board of Supervisors would be empowered to enact a “meals tax,” which would add up to 4% to “the amount charged for prepared food and beverages,” with 70% of the net revenue dedicated to FCPS.  And FCPS needs the money.  As explained by Janie Strauss at the July 28 2016 meeting, there is “structural imbalance” in the FCPS budget:  we have recurring expenses that exceed the recurring revenue.  It is $10.6 million for 2018 even with a one-time transfer of funds that were leftover from 2016.  So the options are between making a bunch of unpopular cuts that may affect the quality of the education provided, or finding additional revenue.  The Board of Supervisors wants to pick door #2.

Leaving aside the question of whether this is actually a good idea, I think the tax proposal is going to fail.  Maybe I’m the only one who remembers the great transportation tax war of 2002.  Way back in that ancient history, Fairfax wanted to increase the sales tax by 1.5% to fund transportation improvements.  Virtually every large business and civic organization supported the tax increase.  There was virtually no organized opposition.  But the tax proposal still lost 54-45.  As with everything, it’s quite possible (if not probable) that I’m wrong.  Maybe the political climate of Fairfax has changed sufficiently in the past fourteen years that such a tax increase can pass this time.  Maybe all those voters who rejected the tax increase in 2002 moved out to Loudoun and Fauquier and Culpeper (three jurisdictions that have rejected a meals tax in the recent past).  Despite the undeniable fact that the politics of Fairfax have changed, I think the majority of voters will still cast a suspicious eye toward the proposed tax increase, in part because there are additional headwinds that the 2002 referendum did not face.  For example, this time around there is a well-funded and organized opposition.

But the headwind that is of most interest to me is the fact that at the same time it was crying poor and coming hat in hand for more money, the school board chose to antagonize and turn into opponents a substantial minority if not a majority of County voters by being the aggressor in the bathroom wars. It takes real nerve to enact a highly controversial policy and then turn around and ask those who passionately oppose what you just did to open up their wallets.  As best explained by this parent in May 2015, the board took a substantial chunk of what should be its most fervent supporters--parents who are highly involved in their children’s’ education and welfare--and turned them “from advocates into adversaries.”

The question I’m trying to figure out is why the board did this.  So far I have only been able to come up with two possible explanations.  The first is that they thought the transgender issue was just that important.  That is, the board members who supported 1450 decided that whatever headaches would follow were worth it in order to “do right” (or at least signal to others that it was “doing right”).  They did this in spite of taking seriously their duty as fiscal stewards, and knowing full well that there were serious budget issues on the horizon.  I’m skeptical of this explanation (at least for a majority of the board) because if passing 1450 was so important despite the obvious consequences, why “pause” the regulations that were written to implement that policy?  Did the transgender issue suddenly become less important?  Or stop being the “right thing to do?”  The pause actually brought them the worst of both worlds, in that the already-antagonized opponents of 1450 still view the board with suspicion, while the pro-1450 crowd feels disappointed, if not betrayed.

The other possible explanation is that many members of the board literally had no idea how strongly many of us felt about allowing boys to use the girls’ locker room.

I think this is the better explanation for a number of reasons:

  • First and foremost, it better accounts for all of the events outlined above:  board members’ general belief that 1450 was a good idea; their commitment to fiscal stewardship; and the regulation “pause” we have right now.  This can all be explained as the actions of a body that thought something was a good idea, did not appreciate the level or strength of opposition, but belatedly realized that there were problems once that opposition made itself more visible.****  
  • Second, Mrs. Plato knows many who support 1450 and were genuinely dumbstruck at the level and intensity of the opposition.  There’s no reason to believe that Board members weren’t similarly caught off guard.  
  • Third, as documented by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, liberals have a harder time understanding conservative positions than vice versa because liberals only operate on three moral foundations (care, fairness, and liberty) while conservatives operate on six (the three that liberals use, as well as loyalty, authority, and sanctity).  It’s quite possible that board members could not foresee the reaction to 1450 because they have a hard time replicating the reasoning used by conservatives when evaluating the issue.  
  • Fourth, leaving aside Haidt's moral foundation analysis, it is quite easy for board members to live their daily lives without encountering a strong conservative critique of the prevailing liberal outlook.  The vast majority of all news media and pop culture reflect a liberal mindset, and it is quite easy for someone in this area to have all of their friends and coworkers to be uniformly liberal. *****  As Walter Russell Mead explained: "What liberals are struggling to come to grips with today is the enormous gap between the dominant ideas and discourse in the liberal worlds of journalism, the foundations, and the academy on the one hand, and the wider realities of American life on the other.  Within the magic circle, liberal ideas have never been more firmly entrenched and less contested. Increasingly, liberals live in a world in which certain ideas are becoming ever more axiomatic and unquestioned even if, outside the walls, those same ideas often seem outlandish."

There is no reason to think that this phenomenon does not apply to members of the school board as well.

But it’s not like failing to appreciate the conservative view of this issue is limited to the school board:  do you really think that the executives at Target woke up one morning and decided that it would be a good idea to lose a million customers, maybe for good?

Unfortunately for the children and teachers of Fairfax County, we do not live in a consequence free universe.  The board failed to appreciate the limits of its own worldview (and failed to read its Chesterton) before passing Resolution 1450.  By doing this it turned potential allies into enemies, and made it that much harder to address the fiscal issues facing the county.  And what’s worse, this distrust might be the new normal since the board’s antagonistic pose towards a large segment of the community is not the type of bell that can be unrung, except perhaps with wholesale change in membership.

Reproduced with permission from Original post is at this link.