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Where the Rhetoric Hits the Road

Like many of you, I've been following discussions of Gov. Corbett's proposed budget cuts fairly closely over the last week. My focus has been on trying to understand the line of reasoning that leads us from a claim around which there is general consensus ('Pennsylvania is in financial trouble') to a claim that is highly controversial ('The proper response to this trouble involves cutting the appropriation to Penn State by roughly 52%'). I am well aware that in admitting that, despite the effort I have put in, I still haven't grasped the connection between these claims, I run the risk of coming off as politically and economically naive. That's a risk I am willing to take, however, because I think the obstacles I have encountered in my attempts might deserve a bit more attention than they are currently getting.

Like many of you, I've been following discussions of Gov. Corbett's proposed budget cuts fairly closely over the last week. My focus has been on trying to understand the line of reasoning that leads us from a claim around which there is general consensus ('Pennsylvania is in financial trouble') to a claim that is highly controversial ('The proper response to this trouble involves cutting the appropriation to Penn State by roughly 52%'). I am well aware that in admitting that, despite the effort I have put in, I still haven't grasped the connection between these claims, I run the risk of coming off as politically and economically naive. That's a risk I am willing to take, however, because I think the obstacles I have encountered in my attempts might deserve a bit more attention than they are currently getting.  

I tried to locate the line of reasoning I was looking for in Gov. Corbett's March 8th Budget Address. What I found was an admittedly clear and coherent rhetorical strategy (the echoes of which one can also hear in the 'man up' rhetoric of subsequent editorials and blog comments). The governor begins with the obvious problem: a $4 Billion projected budget deficit. He then identifies the shortcomings of a 'quick-fix' culture that has dominated in Harrisburg and has only contributed more to the problems we now face. From there, reference is made to the platform he ran on (jobs, jobs, and jobs) as providing him a mandate from the people. Next we get reasons for thinking that increasing taxes would threaten the creation of new jobs. Finally, we get the conclusion that the only thing for the state to do is the same thing that private businesses and households have to do when they are in dire financial straits: cut spending.

While the strategy here is clear, whether or not it is also a good one to adopt seems to depend on two important factors that are quite a bit less clear: Are the claims that lead to this conclusion true? If they are, how do we get from the very general conclusion they support to specific claims about cutting Penn State's appropriation?

Now, I'm not convinced that these claims are true. But, even if they were, we would still have a long way to go to understand why the necessary cuts should come in the specific form the governor proposes. Why should we think that cutting the appropriation to Penn State would be less detrimental to the creation of jobs than would making the cuts in other areas instead? Why should we think that continuing the level of investment taxpayers are currently making in Penn State promises less significant long-term returns than do other investments outlined in the proposed budget? I don't see those who favor the cuts answering these basic economic questions. Until they do, I won't be able to grasp the connection between problem and policy, and it will remain very difficult to tell where their rhetoric hits the road.

Perhaps even more importantly, though, I'm not seeing any response to the central point that I took away from President Spanier's press conference last week: It is not about the money for Penn State!

If I understand what he is saying correctly, the most important challenges this budget raises are not so much economic as they are ethical. These challenges concern our identity and our mission as a publicly supported, land-grant university that serves the good of the commonwealth. They concern the fairness of asking that we bear such a disproportionate amount of a burden for which we bear no real responsibility. They concern the level of wisdom and prudence that the new governor's administration is showing in its stewardship of the commonwealth.

What if President Spanier is right that the real bottom line here is not the money? What if the question of whether and how Penn State can survive the cuts, important as it is, is also somewhat beside the point? What if the real question is one about fairness? In that case, overcoming the obstacles to grasping the connection between problem and policy would require more than economic analysis and projection. 

What would our fair share of the burden be? What is it fair for us to expect from the state? 
What is it fair for the state to expect from us?

Could it be a genuine concern with what the cuts will mean for the commonwealth we serve, rather than a narrowly self-interested concern with how much money will be flowing into our coffers, that motivates the 'surprising' response from State College?

Surely we are all too politically and economically savvy to think that could be the case... right?