In his Times column today, Joe Nocera rails against conservatives who - in thrall to national special interests - think that any state or local fiscal problem is an excuse to "shrink the town government!".
Yet Nocera's article doesn't back up his sharp point.
Nocera uses Woonsocket, Rhode Island, as his case study. State lawmakers who represent Woonsocket, he notes, would rather send their city into receivership and slash pensions than allow the city to raise taxes, even though, Nocera says, "pensions are not the core problem in Woonsocket."
Nocera offers no evidence to back up this assertion. To ascertain whether or not pensions are a problem in Woonsocket, one would have to know how much public pensions cost there today compared to a decade ago, and know, too, the funding status of Woonsocket's pension obligations.
Other facts are salient, too. Josh Barro wrote on Bloomberg today that despite the fact that Woonsocket borrowed $90 million in the debt markets to fund pension obligations a decade ago, the city's 41,000 residents still owe $71 million for unfunded public pensions.
Nor does Nocera offer any facts to back up the assertion that "struggling municipalities like Woonsocket don't have a lot of fat;" therefore, to cut spending is to cut deeply into basic services.
To know if this is true, one would have to look over a decade's worth of Woonsocket's budgets to see if spending has risen extraordinarily in certain areas, and if so, to find out why.
Nocera thinks that Woonsocket's solution is to raise taxes. But he doesn't say how high taxes already are, whether the city's tax base can support a hike, and how the public feels about it.
Would people rather pay higher taxes than suffer budget cuts? If so, then one would think they'd vote non-cooperative lawmakers out of office.
Nocera seems to want to demonstrate that the particulars of this case invalidate a generality on the right: that states and cities have budget problems that they must address with public-benefits reform. But then he ignores the particulars of his particular case.
Nocera is right that the nation's city and state budget problems can't be solved from the top down and by outsiders. He's right, too, that one size doesn't fit all.
States, cities, and towns all have different political, cultural, and fiscal histories. New Orleans is not Cambridge. In a crisis, the residents of some states and municipalities might prefer tax hikes to budget cuts. It's a free country; that is their right.
But the fact that Nocera can't find a specific example to help prove his point doesn't say much about state and local finances overall.