Election-year phrases and what they really mean

March 26, 1998

Bob Maginnis

Elsewhere on this page is a letter from Joseph Motter, who's the winner of our second pair of Basket Bingo tickets. In an earlier column, I offered tickets to the event, a fund-raiser for the Parent-Child Center set for 6 p.m. Friday, April 3, at the Hagerstown Eagles Club, to the letter-writer who best described what sort of homework candidates for Washington County Commissioner ought to do.

Like Sherwin-Williams paint, Motter's letter just about "covers the earth" on this race, although in fairness to the candidates, some of what he addresses - the need to keep down school class sizes and proposals to deal with youngsters' alcohol and drug addiction - seem more like the primary responsibility of the elected school board.

That's nitpicking, really, because what I like about this letter is that it asks the commissioner candidates to present their vision of the future - on land use, economic development and development of new sources of funding. It would be a good campaign indeed if the commissioner hopefuls could dispense with what Motter calls "the usual cynical, hollow promises and platitudes..."


Instead, unfortunately, you will probably hear some of the following statements, which are like the cotton candy sold at summer carnivals - a little bit of sugar spun into a whole lot of fluff.

"Government ought to be run like a business."

Talk about platitudes! This piece of nonsense should make listeners' ears hurt. Government is not a business, and it exists to do those jobs that private enterprise can't or won't do at a price people can afford. For example, would special-education students have any hope of being properly schooled if their parents had to pay the true cost of the services they need? Of course not, and yet if we don't do it, society might have to care for such children forever, as opposed to giving them the tools today that may help them become taxpayers tomorrow.

That doesn't mean that government shouldn't be run in a business-like manner, taking advantage of economies like jointly bidding for needed goods with other agencies to hold down costs. It does mean that looking only at today's bottom line might have an adverse effect on the county's long-term prosperity.

"We've got to cut the fat out of government."

Wouldn't it be convenient if there were a department of fraud, waste and neglect in every government agency with employees we could round up like John Wayne corraling the bad guys? That would make the job so much easier. The truth is that productivity improvements seldom come from the exposure of corruption - like discovery of a politician's do-nothing relatives on the government payroll, for example.

Savings usually come from improved technology - computerizing forms to make them easier to fill out and store, for example - or ending the wasteful duplication that can result when separate departments order machines (copiers and specialty computer programs, for example) that they might share.

"This is a serious problem that we've got to address."

Pay close attention to this one, because candidates who have no clue about how to solve your problem will often mask their cluelessness by expressing deep concern. They say they feel your pain, but what you need is not somebody to tell you they're sorry you skinned your knee (figuratively speaking) but somebody who knows where the band-aids and mercurochrome are. Concern is the first step; ask the candidate what they recommend as Step No. 2.

"What we need is a little common sense in government."

Again, it sounds good, but what does it mean? What seems like common sense to you may be nonsense to me. What Washington County needs is a few candidates with enough experience to know that while elected officials may seek the best answer for any given problem, they often have to work to find a solution that everybody can live with.

Nor would it hurt to have a few candidates like the late commissioner Keller Nigh, who admitted up-front he didn't have all the answers and promised only that he'd give his best effort to finding them.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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