Why States Like Michigan Are Failing

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

So here we are in Michigan with a half-baked budget at best, staring at another government shutdown on Halloween.

Why? As with many states stumbling in this economy, there's plenty of political gamesmanship at work and yes, some rank stupidity. But there are bigger questions that have gone unanswered for too long.

Let's get down to basics. Why do we even have state budgets? Now there's something most of us probably don't contemplate, as we're too busy rushing the kids to soccer practice and trying to hang onto our jobs.

It's probably time we did examine this, since the Great Lakes State is poised to spend around $43 billion this year - with about half of that coming directly from Michiganders. The other half comes courtesy of Uncle Sam (which, of course, includes some of our tax dollars, as well).

Simply put, budgets reflect what we consider important in our states. In Michigan, we've decided to spend millions on prisons, schools, police, the environment, health care, veterans, roads, the courts - and that's a short list.

Why? We decided long ago that these were areas in which the government should be involved. Sometimes the private sector has a piece of this, like in our foster care system, but the idea is that only a government bureaucracy is big and well-funded enough to tackle these social problems.

After all, the point is to preserve the public good and serve the citizenry, not to turn a profit. In the last few decades, states have dabbled with a capitalistic approach to prisons and schools (with decidedly mixed results), but it's hard to imagine doing so with police and the judicial system.

So what does all this mean? First of all, state government touches all of us, every day, starting with the taxes we pay. But even if you don't, there are still the roads you drive on (transportation budget) and the toilets you flush (revenue sharing in the general government budget).

Almost all of us have to renew our vehicle registration every year with the Secretary of State. If you have lost your job, you probably deal with the state for your unemployment benefits. Same thing if you can't afford health care for your kids.

My guess is that if you consider yourself to be on the right end of the political spectrum you're seeing red right now. Why should the government be intruding into all these areas? And sure enough, look how it's mucked it up.

That is the guiding philosophy of state Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester) and most Republicans, which explains their strategy on the budget. It's not just a matter that Michigan is broke - even when the good times roll, let's get government the hell out of the way.

Some people would like government a la carte: I should only have to pay for what I use. The problem is, you use more services than you think. And if your house burns down, do you really want to have to pay the fire department $10,000? Government services operate on the same principle as insurance - we all buy in to spread the risk around so we're covered when we need it. And most of us don't know when that will be (although, as with insurance, it will probably be in your golden years).

Right now, our revenues are plummeting, so we have little money to spend on state services. But here's the grand paradox: the need has never been greater with 15.3 percent unemployment, rampant foreclosures and one in six citizens on Medicaid.

This means that we have to make completely irrational decisions to cut critical programs to balance the budget, since we can't run a deficit like the feds. This is something that self-described conservatives have to acknowledge.

Sadly, they don't. I don't doubt the sincere convictions of many Republicans who believe that smaller government is always better and that cutting taxes will create wealth to keep it running. The problem is that no sober person believes that the Michigan economy will rebound soon, given the state of manufacturing, the auto industry and our low college graduation rate. Personally, I'm hoping by 2015, but I'm an optimist.

Here's the question I've posed to several Republicans: What happens to the people who fall through the cracks in the meantime? How does our state rebuild when a quarter or a third of our citizens don't receive the help they need from the state so they can get a job, see a doctor, stay in school, keep their homes or eat dinner tonight?

I have yet to hear a coherent answer. Perhaps most of us would like to shut our eyes and pretend this isn't happening.

Charities do wonderful work - I've researched this sector extensively for the Knight Foundation - but they don't have the size and scope of government to do it all. They've also taken a beating both in donations and the stock market.

I fail to see what business can do, besides donate money to nonprofits. There's no money to be made off of alleviating (rather than causing) people's suffering. And I continue to be mystified by the right's unwavering faith in corporations after their craven excesses almost destroyed the world economy last fall. But it's the government that's evil. Right.

Me, I believe in Rousseau's social contract. I think there are certain things we owe one another. Government is not always efficient or competent - which is why I continue to push for reform -- but it is generally the best vehicle to ensure that everyone's basic needs are taken care of in society. I'm not an ideologue, so if there are better ways of doing things, like through public-private partnerships, let's do it.

This is the very definition of utilitarianism. However, given today's silly, super-charged partisan climate, I look forward to being called a communist.