The New York Times’ Latest Anthropological Expedition Isn’t So Bad, After All

Very rarely do we have kind words for the New York Times Magazine, but we thought that its recent article on “The Kansas Experiment” was well-written, very even-handed, and remarkably free of the snobbish condescension that usually accompanies the paper’s reports on this part of the world.
As author Chris Suellentrop confesses in his charmingly confessional account, he’s not only a native Kansan himself, he’s also the loving nephew of State Rep. Gene Suellentrop, who is early on identified as “a partisan political warrior … if you’re a liberal, coastal, cosmopolitan sort, at best you see him as a deluded if well-intentioned peddler of what The New York Times’ columnist Paul Krugman has called ‘right-wing derp…'” The article concerns all the radical tax-cutting and budget-cutting that has happened in Kansas since Gov. Sam Brownback was elected along with a solid legislative majority of like-minded state representatives and senators who had ousted mostly more moderate Republicans, and the uncle was very prominent among them, so no matter how liberal and coastal and cosmopolitan the nephew might consider himself he does provide a fair hearing for both sides.
In fact, he goes into more rather detail than the average New York Times Magazine might need about Kansas politics. The gist of it is that Brownback and his allies significantly slashed taxes, with an emphasis on offering relief to businesses and a special emphasis on businesses moving to the state, slashed the budget by a smaller amount but enough to elicit squeals of agony from the teachers and university professors and their administrators and other affected interest groups, and promised that the resulting economic expansion would make up the difference. This did not happen immediately, shortfalls ensued, further budget cuts were proposed, more squeals of agony from the affected interest groups ensued, they wound up raising taxes on cigarettes and booze and couple of other things, found a couple of new cuts and filled in a couple of others. Those liberal and coastal and cosmopolitan readers of The New York Times would likely find that sufficient to conclude that Kansas has once again crazy, and although the Gray Lady has treated its readers to that very story on a few occasions already Suellentrop the Democrats and the last of the moderates to do their gloating, and he also gives Brownback and such allies as the author’s uncle a chance to make the case that there’s a lag between you when offer a tax break and somebody can get a tax-paying business up and running as a result, and he even lists the various factions within the Republican party and the strange deals that result with the small number of Democrats.
There’s some nice local color, too. The article’s portrait of Brownback as a strange combination of easy-going and easily-likable small town boy and a radical every bit as fire-breathing as John Brown is portrayed on the capitol walls strikes us as quite accurate, and we’ve known Brownback since we were Sen. Bob Dole’s interns together way back in ’78. He notes the state’s motto of “ad astra per aspera” and its long history of fomenting radical ideas, from abolition to Prohibition, its obsession with basketball in general and the intrastate rivalries in particular, the peculiar sound of Kansans’ voices, and he even throws in a reference to the Golden Bell diner over on the west side of Wichita. He’s got all the numbers down, too, and the mind-numbing minutia of the after-midnight wrangling that goes on in the extended days of a Kansas legislative session, complete with the teary speeches at 1:30 in the morning, and he accurately conveys the red-hot hatreds that result.
We might quibble with the conclusion, though. The author’s attempts at even-handedness are such that he finds the state’s final — so far — budget resolution a triumph of Kansas politics. He embraces the Democratic notion of higher taxes and more spending, credits the Republican conservatives with winding up voting for it and acknowledges that the Democrats’ cravenly political vote against it was an even greater betrayal of their principles, but this doesn’t quite convincing us that there’s no longer anything wrong with Kansas. The deal did work to the extent that Kansas isn’t Greece or Puerto Rico or Illinois, none of which, by the way, have any of the kind of right-wing crazies we have here in Kansas, but we’re not going back east and will have to live with it and are not at all satisfied.
Of course, no around here is at all satisfied. All our teacher and professor and newspaper-writing friends along with the rest of liberal pals continue to hate Brownback and his allies with that aforementioned red-hot hatred, and even those of us more favorably inclined to Brownback and his allies are disappointed. The budget cuts into education didn’t keep the state from spending more pupil than the national average and more than any countries except a couple of Scandinavian ones, more educational bang for the buck could have been achieved by dis-establishing some of the urban school districts and replacing them with a voucher system, the cuts to the regent universities probably would have forced them to fire some of their extraneous personnel and start lowering tuition rates, the Kansas Supreme Court justices insisting otherwise should all be removed at the next election, all that federally mandated spending on Medicare other bureaucratic compliance should be blithely ignored until the inevitable federal court rulings bring the hammer down, and sooner or later those tax cuts will show results and the alternative is Greece or Puerto Rico or Illinois.
We’re even more fire-breathing than our friend Brownback, though, even if we like to think ourselves just as easy-going and easily-likable, all the more so because we’ll have an occasional smoke and beer, and we’re not writing this for The New York Times’ Magazine. We have contributed to the times, on occasion, and know how very scrupulous they are about being even-handed, so that’s our only quibble with an otherwise fine article.

— Bud Norman

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