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As Long as We Remember...

May 17, 2007

A Penny Saved Isn't Necessarily

Tony Soltero

The late Dave Berg was one of the 20th Century's great American satirists. His work tends to be unduly overlooked by many, because the primary canvas for his work was the kid-oriented Mad Magazine.

His talents fit this forum perfectly - while his humor was direct enough to appeal to his young readership - under the radar he skillfully wove keen commentaries on American life into miniature narratives. This gave his work a subtlety that transcended the cheap gags and gross-out humor that characterized much of the rest of his host magazine.

Whenever I picked up a Mad Magazine in my youth (and later), the first feature I always turned to was Mr. Berg's "The Lighter Side Of..." It was a series of four-panel comic strips revolving around a common theme representative of the postwar American middle-class experience - automobiles, vacations, energy shortages, school, summer jobs, birthdays, fast food, television.

Even though Mr. Berg never forgot that his primary audience was kids, his punch lines and jokes were often remarkably provocative, and, decades later, many of them continue to resonate.

Once Mr. Berg spotlighted inflation, which was a serious household concern in the 1970s. In one of the strips, a couple is out shopping for groceries. In the days before checkout scanners, supermarkets stamped prices directly on the product, and the wife hatches a little scheme: if she reaches far into the back of the shelf, maybe she'll get lucky and retrieve a soup can that was marked before the most recent round of price increases. And, lo and behold, she succeeds; she triumphantly brags to her husband that she saved three cents on soup with her little maneuver. "I beat the system!" she proclaims.

Of course, in the next panel, the lady then grabs a $10 heating pad off the shelf. Why does she suddenly need one? Because she pulled a muscle while she was snatching the deeply-buried soup can. So much for beating inflation.

I thought of that strip when I noticed the Frederick City government's actions in the recent budget dustup over police funding. Recent crime increases - which are a common, but not inevitable, byproduct of growth - have motivated city residents to petition the mayor and Board of Aldermen for an increase in the city's law enforcement budget.

Given that the primary responsibility of government - at any level - is to protect its citizens, it seemed to be a most reasonable request, and certainly enough incentive to consider halving the proposed two-cent property tax cut in order to fulfill this critical duty.

Alderman Donna Kuzemchak-Ramsburg even delineated how the city should re-invest in law enforcement and citizen protection, producing an itemized plan. Aldermen Kip Koontz and Marcia Hall also supported providing more resources to law enforcement. And since crime-fighting is one of the Republicans' stated mantras, it shouldn't have been too much of a stretch to get Mayor Jeff Holtzinger and the two GOP aldermen to get on board.

But, astonishingly, the Republicans revealed how inthralled they are to the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Tax Cuts. It's one thing to want to gut school and library budgets to fund their tax-cutting mania; that's been the party's standard practice for decades. But, when such dogmatism extends to the level where the supposedly tough-on-crime party doesn't even want to fund law enforcement, it's pretty obvious that Republicans aren't interested in governing and providing any kinds of services.

And, as is usually the case with this cut-taxes-at-all-costs mentality, whatever short-term "savings" realized often get wiped out by the longer-term costs that emerge as a direct consequence of the drown-government-in-the-bathtub credo, as happened with Dave Berg's grocery shoppers, and as we've seen at the national level, with the disgrace that was FEMA's performance in the wake of Katrina.

Of course, many argue that that's the plan - since Republicans like to claim that government can't do anything right - they have a vested interest in denying the proper funding and management to federal, state, and local agencies when they're in power. Then when the under-funded, unsupported agencies inevitably fail to perform, the Republicans cite the failures as "proof" that government can't work. But I never thought this approach would extend to the police.

The city might be able to give its households an extra two bucks a month if it forgoes needed police protection. But is it worth the potential spike in 911 trouble calls that come with the lessened service?

Will a family then have to invest in an extra alarm system for its home? Those cost a little bit more than two dollars. Will the dedicated, hardworking law-enforcement officers of Frederick find themselves so overstretched that preventable crimes claim lives and property?

Will parents worry more about letting their children play outside? Will Frederick citizens have to lead barricaded lives, shuttling fearfully between enclosed safe zones?

Sometimes a small tax cut is really a long-term tax increase. This is one of those times. Let's not re-enact the experience of Dave Berg's shoppers in Frederick City.

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