The Great Retrenchment

Piece by piece, America is painfully readjusting amid a troubled economy

You've already seen, and will continue to see, story after story about this group or that getting cuts in public services and what a shame it is.


And it is a shame.


You've also started seeing, and will likely continue to see, stories about groups protesting those cuts - or, worse, lamenting that the same old increases in public spending aren't happening. A couple of very recent examples:


- Georgia's network of "talking book" centers is looking at how best to curtail services to meet today's economic realities without hurting clients too much. Customers are concerned, as one story noted, that they "will lose the quality of service they now receive."


We hope that doesn't happen - but it probably has to. Cutbacks are happening in every sector of our economy. In truth, the public sector - insulated from most ebbs and flows of the economy due to the government's ability to tax at will - is only starting to catch up to the private sector, which began cutting long ago.


- Meanwhile, an anonymous ranter to The Chronicle Tuesday bemoaned a local legislator's vote against automatic "step" increases in pay for teachers earning leadership degrees.


This just in: The world changed in 2008. Hardly anything will be automatic anymore. The "reset" button was pushed; you are now living in the "new normal," the land of doing more with less.


This country was living on borrowed time, as it turns out. Much of our wealth was sitting atop debt. Things have changed. The money just isn't there like it used to be, and folks need to adjust their expectations accordingly.


We've lived through what some are calling the Great Recession. Now we're living through the natural result: the Great Retrenchment. More cuts are undoubtedly on the way, as state and local governments deal with the new reality.


Indeed, cities across America are making unprecedented budget cuts and considering bankruptcy protection. In Reading, Pa., they laid off 27 city employees - including 11 police officers - after a $3 million surplus turned into a $5.5 million deficit inside of one year.


The mayor of Reading says the city has been "cutting services that people have grown to expect, and cutting jobs where they have never been cut before ..."


In Hazleton, Pa., the mayor proposed selling the city's water system to make ends meet.


In the state's capital of Harrisburg, The Patriot-News editorialized recently that the city must consider bankruptcy protection - "unless someone in City Hall has a winning Powerball ticket."


Such scenarios are quietly happening across the country because, unlike the federal government, most cities and states are required to balance their budgets. New York's budget deficit is over $8 billion. In California, writes The Sacramento Bee's Dan Walters, "Officially, the state has a $19.9 billion deficit for the remaining five months of this fiscal year and all of the next, but there's every reason to believe it will be worse, given the sorry history of budget forecasts."

With the city of Los Angeles staring at a $500 million deficit in the coming fiscal year, councilman Greig Smith says, "If we don't move quickly, and I mean very quickly, we will be bankrupt before summer." And even if they do act quickly, he says, "we could still be facing financial ruin later in the year."

People who are lamenting and protesting may not realize the extent of this continuing budget crisis, especially since the major media are missing what may be the biggest story of the year: The Great Retrenchment.

It won't happen without pain.

And it's going to have to happen over a lot of complaints.

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Wed, 03/01/2017 - 00:18

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