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Retirement and local politics

June 9th, 2004 (04:32 pm)

current mood: discontent
current song: 10,000 Maniacs - What's The Matter Here?

Three good things that taste lousy together:

  1. Every American gets one vote.
  2. Americans move around a lot.
  3. Many (most?) Americans retire while they're still healthy.

As a result, we wind up with populations of active retirees who may live a long way from their descendants, and have plenty of time for politics. This is a dangerous combination, because it means that they have a disproportionate voice in local politics, even though their time horizon is shorter than other people's. ("What do I care if the schools here go down the drain? I don't have any kids in school around here.") Oh, and their finances are usually tighter than when they were working, so they're more sensitive to any proposal to spend public money.

In Chelmsford (where we have a large concentration of retirement homes), the upshot is that it's hard to get necessary tax increases passed. The schools have been falling apart for years, while the town deferred maintenance on them; various proposals were made to pay for repairs or replacements, but they all had to go before the voters, since they involved raising the property tax. The last one to fail actually would have saved money, because (a) it would have qualified us for a federal matching grant, and (b) the maintenance situation was bad enough that it just couldn't be deferred much longer, and some huge chunk of money would have had to be spent either way. (A few months later a different one finally passed, but I'm not clear on the details.)

I'm not sure what could be done about this. Disenfranchising retirees is obviously out; so is any kind of attempt to make them live near their descendants (so that have a long-term interest in the health of the town). What might work would be giving children the vote (and, presumably, letting parents vote their children's proxy). It seems radical, but think about it: it's just a matter of making sure that authority aligns with responsibility. We, as parents, are responsible for protecting our children's current and future interests; but we don't have any more authority than non-parents.

There would be side effects, of course. For a start, there would be a vast shift of political power towards the lower classes, who tend to have larger families. (Plus, of course, there'd be a psychological effect: someone with a large family would know their vote counted for more, instead of thinking they were wasting their time.) In principle, I don't have a problem with this; a democratic society has a duty to consider everybody's interests, not just the interests of those who are currently over 18. Besides, given how the economy conspires to reduce the power of the poor, it's important to restore the balance any way we can. Still, it would be prudent to think through just what the effects of this power shift would be--for example, would the poor actually have more power, or would it just draw more vote-buyers to the inner city?

Another partial solution would be to require employers to give employees time off to vote--maybe even to make voting mandatory for every citizen over 18. (Obviously, you can't do the latter without the former.) That would reduce the "retired people have more time" disparity--they'd still have more time to participate in politics ahead of voting day, of course.


Posted by: C. Virtue (cvirtue)
Posted at: June 9th, 2004 04:06 pm (UTC)

That would never fly.

I'd rather make it mandatory to vote or you pay a fine of some kind.

Another solution, which doesn't penalize those without kids, is to let you vote on a votes-per-money-input-to-taxes basis.

I think that some of the problem recently here is plain inflation sticker shock on the part of the older folks. They see a school bill with a $31 million tag and assume it must mean gold-plated lockers, because that's what it would have meant when they were in their 30s.

Posted by: maestrateresa (maestrateresa)
Posted at: June 9th, 2004 05:57 pm (UTC)

Another solution, which doesn't penalize those without kids, is to let you vote on a votes-per-money-input-to-taxes basis.

Nope, just penalizes the poor. Come to think of it, that's really how the government works anyway, isn't it?

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: June 9th, 2004 06:30 pm (UTC)

Maybe, maybe not. If it were based purely on income tax, then, yeah, the poor and the very rich would have no votes. But add in all your taxes (sales tax, Social Security, DMV fees), and poor people have some votes; and then add up all the poor people, and their votes might actually balance or outweigh those of the rich.

Plus, of course, it would mean that rich people would suddenly have a motivation to actually pull their own weight, tax-wise. That in itself could be a great benefit: balance the budget on the backs of the rich, anybody?

Uh. One catch: if the rich paid in enough taxes--including donations--for a majority, they could then start voting themselves benefits to get back the taxes they were paying for those votes.

I think that's the fatal flaw: any coherent interest that can put together enough tax dollars/votes to get things done can then vote to give itself benefits to counteract the taxes that justify their votes.

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: June 9th, 2004 06:38 pm (UTC)

That would never fly. [...] Another solution, which doesn't penalize those without kids

Whether it would fly depends on how it gets marketed. The way to sell it is to point out that, today, the kids are getting penalized, because they have no political power to look out for their own interests. A family of 5 with 2 adults has no more political power than a childless couple--and effectively less, because the adults have less time to spend on politics. You and I have no more say in what kind of world Arthur and Elizabeth will have when they turn 18 than an 80-year-old who will be gone by that time.

Posted by: C. Virtue (cvirtue)
Posted at: June 10th, 2004 04:49 am (UTC)

The reality is that no one is going to support a change in the one-person-over 18, one vote system. So a real solution works with that.

Mandatory voting or lose priviledges is one. Another is motivating the parents more, or doing more education on the issues for the retirees.

Posted by: Justin du Coeur (jducoeur)
Posted at: June 10th, 2004 09:00 am (UTC)
Re: Reality

Another is motivating the parents more, or doing more education on the issues for the retirees.

Frankly, the correct long-term solution is instilling a sense of ethical responsibility towards society in general. It looks to me like this particular issue is just a specific instance of a more general societal malaise.

This seems to be a great failing of the rightward shift of the US in the past two decades: despite it's "family values" rhetoric, it has tended to have a very anti-community slant. Somewhere along the line, the notion that personal selfishness needs to be balanced against community interest has gotten obscured...

Posted by: metahacker (metahacker)
Posted at: June 14th, 2004 03:08 pm (UTC)

How about making voting so easy anyone can do it?

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