Sam Brownback gutted Kansas: How America's worst governor and an ultra-conservative ideology wrecked an entire state

GOP zealots, enthralled by a fictitious fantasy of tax cuts and free-market nonsense, turned Kansas upside down

Published April 30, 2016 10:30AM (EDT)

 (AP/Orlin Wagner)
(AP/Orlin Wagner)

It’s safe to say that if Kansas’s Gov. Sam Brownback or any of the state’s ultraconservative legislators had been in fictional astronaut Mark Watney’s place ("The Martian"), they would have never survived the 543 sols that Watney spent stranded on Mars before being rescued. It’s doubtful they would have even made it back to the Hab in the first place after inadvertently being left for dead in the middle of the fateful sandstorm that drove the crew to abandon their mission. Survival depended on logically assessing the situation at hand and subsequently deciding on a course of action based on empirical evidence, sound scientific, engineering and even economic principles, and best practices. These aren’t key strengths of Brownback or ultraconservative legislators.

And in this case they would have essentially been responsible for creating the sandstorm that forced the astronaut team to flee Mars to begin with. Kansas is experiencing a massive “lack of revenue” storm created by the income tax cuts of 2012 and 2013, seriously jeopardizing the state’s future and quality of life for Kansans across the state. Everything from transportation infrastructure to public education are struggling to stay upright in the gale-force winds of the income tax cuts. Some Kansans are fleeing the state as if having been given the order to abandon the mission, though most fight to survive in this increasingly hostile environment.

For Kansas, a better protagonist would be the Kansas Center for Economic Growth (KCEG), a nonpartisan organization with a much better grasp of economics and the use of empirical evidence to guide their policy recommendations. Executive director Annie McKay, senior fellow Duane Goossen and others at the KCEG are far better prepared to “science the shit out of this,” rescuing themselves and the rest of us from the desolation of the Kansas economic landscape being wrought by the “lack of revenue” storm.

In their recent report, "Kansas Public Education: The Foundation for Economic Growth," the KCEG effectively demonstrates a) the short- and long-term benefits of a strong public education system (everything from reduced public healthcare costs to the attraction and retention of workers/businesses), b) that K-12 education is an economic driver in Kansas with a significant return on investment and c) that K-12 public education is currently underfunded (and under threat) in the state of Kansas.

To address this, KCEG makes the following two policy recommendations to provide better support for Kansas public education and subsequently provide broader economic prosperity across the state:

  • Repeal the unaffordable income tax changes to generate revenue and invest in schools.
  • Replace the inadequate block grant with an equitable school funding formula that accounts for what it actually costs to educate and prepare students for life after high school.

KCEG’s report and policy recommendations are based on solid economic and education third-party research, their own data analyses (conducted by qualified individuals in an objective manner) and conversations with business, community and school leaders from across the state. Contrast this with the ideological zealotry of the Brownback administration, their ultraconservative legislative allies and organizations like the Kansas Policy Institute (KPI), who’ve been standing firm on the tax cuts, regardless of what the short- and long-term impacts on public services and Kansans will be.

Of course if one assumes the goal is to significantly reduce the role and size of state government, and to correspondingly increase a) the burden on the individual (subscribing to the myth of the self-made “man”) as well as b) privatization, particularly for public education which composes the majority of the state’s budget, then the tax cuts are working. Unfortunately, they’ll eventually turn Kansas’s economy into a something resembling the desolate Martian landscape.

KCEG’s report partially demonstrates from one economic perspective why such a view of the world, when actualized into public policy, doesn’t work, except for those at the top of the financial food chain. KCEG rightly points out that the tax revenues devoted to state-provided services, such as transportation infrastructure, public education and healthcare, to name a few, are in actuality investments in some very “powerful economic development tools” available to Kansas (and other states).

Looking just at public education, according to KCEG’s analysis, “[e]ach dollar invested in public schools reaps a $2.62 return…” that benefits all Kansans in terms of the quality of our workforce, the earning (and spending) power of graduates, reduced healthcare costs, reduced crime control costs and reduced welfare costs. The return on investment we all receive from the taxes that generate these much-needed revenues, regardless of whether one receives a direct or indirect benefit (i.e., people without children or who were home-schooled also benefit from a well-educated citizenry) doesn’t fit the ultraconservative narrative of a free market utopia with little government involvement and individuals solely responsible for their successes and misfortunes.

And the wealthy do typically gain more than everyone else under such a system – they keep more of their wealth with reduced taxes and are able to supplement with their own resources any reduction in government services, such as sending their kids to private schools. They often benefit from the increased privatization that occurs if they are financially involved in the private entities who provide the services. Those investments relative to business growth are also focused on their own interests, and therefore the greater economic benefits are more localized and smaller relative to the benefits and services that were displaced through shrinking government. Trickle-down is an apt term – it typically is just a trickle (if that) relative to the population at large.

Research in other disciplines strongly support this as well. Continuing with the theme of wanting to “science the shit out of this,” let’s take a look at what research from the intersection of biology, behavior, economics and the social sciences have to say (see "Evolution: This View of Life" as well as the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization Special Issue on Evolution as a General Theoretical Framework for Economics and Public Policy for a jumping-off point into this research).

Free market principals and associated economic models are built in part around the view of humans as Homo economicus, making “rational” decisions based on a narrow, relatively short-term cost/benefit analysis and pursuing their self-interests relentlessly at the near exclusion of all other factors. While it’s true such “selfish” behavior (selfish relative to other individuals or the groups one is a part of) exists and manifests under a variety of conditions, it by no means fully defines human behavior.

Our evolutionary history has also designed us to be extremely social creatures who love to congregate. In contrast to selfish behavior, “pro-social” actions benefit the larger, encompassing groups one is a part of (sometimes at the expense of the individual or smaller group). Selfish behaviors tend to be locally advantageous, particularly for the individual or smaller group conducting the behavior, and more relevant in the short term, while pro-social behaviors tend to be globally advantageous to the larger encompassing group and society, and more relevant in the long term.

Pro-social behaviors also tend to enhance cooperation among group members. And our social/cultural norms act as a kind of “glue,” binding together unrelated individuals within larger groups and providing a measure of uniformity in their behavior. From an evolutionary perspective, cooperation and a measure of uniformity are hallmarks of successful groups.

And so individual decisions often are made to conform with social/cultural norms and rules of interaction, typically benefiting the larger group as much as or more than the individual. There also is the potential for such decisions and actions to be a detriment to the individual relative to other group members. Paying taxes benefits the larger group structures themselves – the institutions of the state and subsequent services provided; it also benefits individual citizens to varying degrees relative to the “services” provided by the state. It may benefit the individual paying the taxes directly and immediately or it may be an indirect benefit in that group longevity, stability and prosperity are all contributed to by payment of taxes.

Individuals (and businesses) who avoid paying their fair share of taxes (selfish behavior relative to the larger group), either illegally or through legal loopholes, put themselves at an advantage compared to their fellow group members who pro-socially pay their fair share. And wealthier individuals (and businesses) who support drastically reducing or eliminating taxes also put themselves at a benefit relative to their fellow citizens who depend to varying degrees on state services. Such actions in effect shift the level of selection from the larger group down to the level of individuals and smaller groups (including communities and businesses), creating more intragroup competition and decreasing group uniformity and cooperation.

Our pro-social and selfish natures, and their differing manifestations relative to the dominant level of selection, developed over the course of our evolutionary history spent as hunter-gatherers living in more egalitarian groups. Social/cultural mechanisms and processes, such as transparency of behavior, public shaming, gossiping and ostracizing evolved to minimize selfish behaviors and maximize pro-social behaviors in groups that are smaller and less complex than the ones we live in today.

Those same social/cultural mechanisms and processes can be effective in modern society. However, the much greater number of individuals and subgroups, often competing and cooperating on different levels at the same time and often hierarchically nested within each other, require additional social mechanisms to help maintain the level of selection primarily at the larger group level. Formal laws, regulations and governing structures, including those requiring taxes be paid to adequately fund services provided by the state, are examples of such mechanisms. A few years ago, David Sloan Wilson, Elinor Ostrom and Michael E. Cox provided a more detailed overview of the application of these mechanisms in modern society.

This was a simplified discussion of the literature, but it summarizes some of the limitations of Homo economicus as the only important aspect of human behavior to consider in economic models as well as the fallacy of a free market utopia where individual freedoms and responsibility reign supreme. It also ends in the same place as the conclusions of KCEG’s report: public services, including a strong, equitable public education system, benefit us all and therefore require adequate and fair taxation as a source of revenue.

Despite all of the evidence against the governor and ultraconservative legislators clinging to a free market utopia, despite being put on a credit watch by Standard and Poor's, despite many previous ultraconservative legislative allies now jumping ship as the fall elections approach, the governor is standing by the tax cuts. And he continues to receive support (and likely pressure) from the Kansas Policy Institute, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other similar groups as they persist in whipping up a sandstorm of misinformation and spin.

As David Sloan Wilson, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University, has previously stated, “[Ideological] zealots are famously immune to experience, scientific evidence, logic and common sense… Perverse [policies] with ruinous consequences make sense to the economic true believer. If they fail, then the solution is to practice them even more assiduously. The only solution to this problem is to break the spell by changing the story to one that is more in tune with reality.”

And that’s what I’ve tried to do here (as well as KCEG and others elsewhere), but I’ve little hope it will break the free market spell holding sway over the governor. Nor should Kansans be fooled by those ultraconservative legislators now calling for some degree of tax cut repeal. A term-limited governor who continuously threatens to veto any legislation repealing or reducing the tax cuts serves as great cover for those ultraconservative legislators with the same goals, who are also seeking re-election.

Ultimately, the real hero in this story will be Kansas voters if they recognize what it takes to “science the shit out of this” and use their voting power to change the legislative landscape this fall.

By Marcel Harmon

Marcel Harmon is the Vice President of the Board of Education in Lawrence, KS (USD #497), was previously a member of the Kansas Review Committee for the Next Generation Science Standards, has an interdisciplinary background in anthropology and engineering and works for a high performance building consulting firm. He frequently writes on education and aspects of the built environment from an anthropological perspective.

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