Remember Pogo Possum, the swamp-dwelling protagonist of the eponymous comic strip? I never paid much attention to the strip, even as a comics-loving kid.
But I do remember Pogo’s famous remark: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
That sweet little epigram was a sly rephrasing of an equally well-known wartime dispatch sent in 1813 from Oliver Hazard Perry to William Henry Harrison, saying that “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.”
Forty years later Pogo’s words perfectly describe the state of affairs in our sometimes-hapless country.
Do you think Bill Clinton wishes he’d ignored the fat girl snapping her thong at him? Does Al Gore regret losing his home state of Tennessee in the 2000 election? Does Michael Dukakis regret getting into that tank? Does Dennis Kozlowski yearn from prison for his $6,000 shower curtain? Does President Bush wish he’d never heard of Iraq? Does Britney Spears regret … well, anything?
There is, one might surmise, an inexorable law of nature at work here. Put simply, it means that your failures will often trump your successes.
Build a major corporation out of nothing, create billions of dollars in shareholder value, cook the books for a quarter or two to keep those Wall Street wolves off your back, and you’re broke, disgraced and in jail.
Cruise happily through life, become president, invade the wrong country — and everybody hates you. Become a superstar at 19, make tens of millions of dollars, release your inner bar skank — and your career is toast.
But despite the folly of politicians, the foolish avarice of billionaire tycoons and the high-spirited cavorting of celebrity ingenue, the country’s in pretty good shape.
The stock market hits new highs every few days. Most of us have jobs, a car, a house, family and friends. Iraq’s a mess, but unlikely to be so in a couple of years. We are, whether we admit it or not, fortunate people living in fortunate times.
But, as we in the media like to remind you, there are lots of things that need fixin’, and you’d better get to work and take care of them right now!
Take higher education, for example.
According to the estimable Hank Brown, once a fine senator and now president of the University of Colorado, our state’s august institutions of higher education need a big chunk of change. As Brown wrote in recent op-ed:
“A recent study, originally commissioned by former Gov. Bill Owens and conducted by the respected National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, found Colorado higher education needs an additional $832 million just to reach the national average of state support.”
Brown then points out that the state doesn’t have a spare three-quarters of a billion just lying around and implies taxpayers had better cough up or bad things will happen.
I’d vote for a designated funding source for higher education. But, at the same time, it’s possible to look at the facts through a different prism and come to another conclusion.
Let’s accept Brown’s description, if not his prescription, and acknowledge that higher education is an underfunded mess and has been for many years. What are the consequences?
Are we, as a state, devolving? Are we becoming more like, say, Mississippi — poor, badly educated, afflicted with a stagnant economy and an unskilled work force?
Apparently not, according to most of the indices which measure such things. We’re one of the best-educated states, measured by percentage of college graduates, of individuals with advanced degrees and by job distribution. We have a notably skilled, efficient and adaptable work force, and our incomes reflect this fact.
So what’s going on? Maybe higher education has more than enough money already. Can we just go on as we are?
The answer is simple. We import a substantial percentage of our work force. Skilled, highly educated folks are attracted to Colorado for the same reasons that brought so many of us here.
We are, in effect, being subsidized by other states, and even other nations. Their tax money goes to train our work force — pretty cool, isn’t it?
Of course, we should reciprocate. We should make sure our institutions of higher education are as well funded as those in other states, so our young people will have the same job opportunities as their better-prepared counterparts.
But maybe we shouldn’t. Isn’t it more important to have lower taxes and an attractive climate for business than to spend money educating our kids? After all, we can just hire migrants from Kansas, or Connecticut or California.
Life is tough and competitive, and by not paying for some fancy-schmancy professor to fill our kids’ heads with lefty nonsense, we’re doing the kids a favor. They can just go to the library, and educate themselves!
Obviously, I’m not serious.
We need to find more money for higher education and we need to look at funding shortfalls elsewhere as well — in transportation, in K-12 education, in public safety, in infrastructure, in virtually every area of government.
But what would it all cost? What would the tab be to repair all the roads, build commuter rail on the Interstate 70 and Interstate 25 corridors, cover the medically uninsured, build hundreds of new schools, hire thousands of new teachers and pay them a reasonable salary?
I don’t know, but I imagine that we’d have to double the sales, income and property tax rates, just for starters. And that would depress property values, chase businesses away and cost tens of thousands of jobs — mine among them.
So what do we do? We make do with what we have.
My ever-so-slightly decrepit 1898 Victorian needs a new roof, a paint job, new storm windows and an extended sprinkler system. But I can’t afford it, so it won’t get done. I’ll do what I can — hey, I might even paint the porch this weekend.
So if Hank Brown wants my opinion about his billion-dollar shortfall, here it is: keep complaining and maybe you can snake another $100 million out of the legislature, but don’t ask me for more money.
I know, I know — I said I’d vote for a higher education tax, but I’ve changed my mind.
Ask me again when I’ve got my house all fixed up.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5681.