Bleating around the bush

The Nevada governor’s race is a joke. Neither candidate will talk about the most important issue facing the state: what to do about a projected $3 billion budget deficit.

But I’m being naïve, of course. Naturally, Rory Reid and Brian Sandoval don’t want to talk about the budget deficit, because any way you look at the issue, it’s a political cow patty. Raising taxes to cover the shortfall is unpopular. Cutting budgets to reduce the shortfall is also unpopular. Even some combination of the two seems to be a strategic no-no. The candidates figure they’re better off talking about anything else.

We have to be more demanding of these candidates. I don’t think it’s overly dramatic to suggest that the state’s future is at stake, and if these guys don’t have any plans to share with us, then None of These Candidates should get a lot of votes in November.

Reid would seem most likely to take a crack at the budget crisis. He’s released detailed position papers addressing economic development, ethics reform, education reform and renewable energy. He has fresh ideas in all these areas. And yet, with four months to Election Day, he won’t talk about balancing the budget.

Sandoval’s campaign is not based on the same level of substance, so he might be expected to adopt a more evasive stance on controversial issues. But ignoring a problem does not mean that it goes away. No matter who wins the race, the next governor is going to face a monumental challenge, a potential turning point in the state’s history.

It makes you wonder why either of them would want the job at this time.

To make matters worse, many of the nation’s leading economic thinkers have a sinking suspicion that prosperity is not right around the corner. In fact, rather than embracing the wishful thinking that the recession is receding, they worry that we might be in the midst of a depression.

Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist, says past depressions have "included periods when the economy grew," as appears to be happening now. "But these episodes of improvement were never enough to undo the damage from the initial slump, and were followed by relapses."

If we’re in a depression, Krugman says, it’s because not enough has been done to stimulate the economy. He advocates more spending, not less, to prevent the devastating effects of a lengthy downturn.

Although Krugman has plenty of supporters, other respected economists fret about the long-term damage from the ballooning U.S. deficit. And when regular people compare the Krugman position with the belt-tightening position, they’re likely to consider their personal experience and side with the latter view.

For the average person, when times are tough, the logical thing is to cut back on luxuries, to do without the things you can’t afford, lest your debts rise out of control. This may not be the most effective way for a national government to lift itself out of recession, but it’s not easy for most people to disconnect the logic from their personal experience.

What’s more, what if Krugman is wrong? His New York Times colleague, David Brooks, notes that certainty about any position in this complicated world is fraught with peril. "All schools of economic thought have taken their lumps over the past few years," Brooks writes. "Are you really willing to risk national insolvency on the basis of a model?"

Brooks adds that the most important factor in today’s economy is a matter of psychology: consumer confidence. And, right or wrong, "these days, debt-fueled government spending doesn’t increase confidence. It destroys it."

Nevada is a great case study in evaluating President Obama’s first stimulus package. Did it have any positive impact here? Maybe a little. We’ve done some road work that needed doing, and kept some people employed in the process. That’s good. But in the bigger picture, Nevada’s economy is worse off today than it was when the recession started.

Here’s the point: Paul Krugman and David Brooks are wrestling with the most critical economic matters in today’s world on the op-ed page, while the gubernatorial candidates in one of the nation’s hardest-hit states basically have no comment.

That’s messed up. And it’s our fault.

It’s our fault because we’re suckers for gotcha politics. If a candidate were to go out on a limb and outline his budget-balancing plans, he would be skewered by his opponent. And vice versa. It’s all silly rhetoric, yet most voters seem to relish it.

But considering the gravity of Nevada’s situation, voters must be more mature. We must demand that Reid and Sandoval spare us the tired partisan sound bites, and instead tell us about the painful cuts that must be made, about the wrenching tax hikes that must be approved, about the sacrifices that must be endured for Nevada to get through one of the toughest times in its history.

Give us some sign that you’re the best person to lead Nevada out of this economic quagmire. Unless you’re confronting the economy head on, you’re not showing leadership.

Geoff Schumacher is Stephens Media’s director of community publications. He writes on issues facing Southern Nevada residents.

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