Opinion: Magical thinking must stop now

The Trump Administration’s new budget proposes massive cuts to Medicaid and other programs that benefit the poorest Americans, while rewarding the super rich. This is to be expected, but there is more. The proposal forecasts 3 percent annual growth in the coming years: about twice what economists predict. Why? White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney answered, “That [other estimate] assumes a pessimism about America — about the economy, about its people, about its culture — that we’re simply refusing to accept.”

Refusing to accept.

Reality is hard, so we refuse to accept it.

Anyone remember Gov. Sam Brownback’s famous line about how the sun is shining in Kansas?

Magical thinking has slipped its leash. Pretend and make-believe have replaced careful, worldly thinking about serious problems. Unhappy about those budget numbers? No problem, just make up new ones.

Kansans know all about this. The saga of Brownback’s 2012 tax cuts, runaway deficits and weak economic growth has already been told. At issue here are Brownback’s responses: the rationalizations, stonewalling and outright denials. As with Trump’s proposal, the revenue numbers used to produce Brownback’s tax cut bill were not based on the state’s consensus revenue estimates. Compiled by economists, they foretold disastrous revenue losses from the cuts and much less economic growth than he promised. Even those turned out to be too optimistic, but were still the most accurate. Brownback did not like those numbers, so he just used his own. Now we live with the consequences. Today, the tide is finally starting to turn; today, the Kansas Legislature stands just a maddening few votes shy of overriding his veto and repealing this experiment altogether.

The governor never admitted defeat. He blamed the agricultural economy, already accounted for in those consensus revenue estimates. He touts new business creation, but economists say it is mostly re-incorporation by the self-employed, due to a tax loophole he created. Brownback even suggested that Johnson County build a multibillion dollar commercial airport to compete with Kansas City, Mo. How would he pay for this? Certainly not on credit; the state’s bond ratings have dropped several times recently.

Here in real Kansas, economic growth lags behind many neighboring states, schools are so underfunded they have taken the state to court, and health care providers wait longer and longer to get paid less and less. Those serving lower-income communities operate on slim margins and may have to close or deny services. Some are already gone.

Reality is messy and complicated. The good guys do not always win, the best ideas do not always prevail, and good intentions do not equal good results. Effective decisions take hard work: sifting through numbers, deciding upon trade-offs and making sacrifices. They require empathy with those affected by our actions, and a willingness to admit mistakes and make amends.

Instead, we have been given a budget that is particularly vindictive to the poor, kind to the rich and fundamentally unbalanced. When children learn that their magical daydreams are just pretend, they are sad for a while, then get over it. When policymakers engage in magical thinking, it is the rest of us who suffer — and for a long time to come.

— Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.