Despite a booming economy, real wage growth, historically low unemployment, and the proliferation of mega-billionaires, government never seems to have enough money. Be it our county or local jurisdictions, if not for federal assistance and PG&E settlements, government financial resources are flat at best. The social needs and problems we face as a community – inadequate mental health services, limited assistance for the unhoused, the lack of affordable housing, and so forth – go begging each year, no matter how well the overall economy is doing.
World governments as a whole, the government of the United States, California, and all its counties and cities, including Sonoma County and the City of Sonoma, are suffering from the effects of an economy based upon continuous, unlimited growth, an inherently unsustainable approach. This has created a vicious cycle within which upwards pressure is placed on everything: salaries, benefits, pensions, public services, taxes, and incomes. As the costs of government rise, priority is placed on economic growth, and the vicious cycle continues.
Like any addiction, addiction to continuous unlimited growth comes at a cost. Globally, it’s resulted in massive, negative effects on climate, and the costs to cope with climate change are equally massive. Locally, government is sucking up more money every year, money that should be used to improve lives and communities. Instead, increased government revenues are often just covering government’s increased costs.
Digital technology provides an interesting example. It was promoted as a way to increase government’s efficiency and productivity, but in many ways it’s had the opposite effect. We see this happening in ordinary lives, too. Rather than serving the needs of people, people now serve the needs of technology. For government, this has meant large, ongoing investments in software and equipment upgrades, increased staffing, and greater spending on computer security consultants. What was supposed to save time and money has resulted in exactly the opposite.
Similarly, state housing mandates force local governments to program continuous growth into their plans, even while the population of California is declining. This also means local government needs to hire additional, expensive consultants and legal specialists to sort through the new regulations and determine what local government must do to comply. As cities and counties grow, so do the costs of providing government services.
The vicious cycle continues by demanding commercial development to provide the increased revenues to fund government, and yet increased commercial development brings the need for more police, fire, and ambulance services. At each turn, our addiction to unlimited growth demands more, despite the facts of living in a limited world.
An economy of enough doesn’t stand a chance. The vicious cycle won’t let it happen. The relentless growth of government appears unstoppable. Technology can’t stop it, the State of California won’t stop it, and citizens seem essentially helpless to stop it, too. As a community, however, we need to begin to think in terms of enough, and we better begin right now.One way would be to take advantage of the pool of citizen talent, in lieu of new staff hires in various city departments. Allowing retired professionals to serve voluntarily, something we have previously proposed, would relieve the budget and bring new perspectives. And if we are serious about curbing endless spending, we need to start with a thorough audit of the city budget.
More and bigger are not always better, and are often terrible. Breaking government’s addiction to unlimited growth won’t be easy, but the “cold turkey” alternative is bankruptcy and social collapse, and that hurts much worse.