Schaeffer's Immutable Laws


By Pem Schaeffer — Dr. Thomas Sowell, the prolific scholar and author at the Hoover Institution, sometimes writes columns he calls ‘Random Thoughts.’  He passes along seemingly unconnected thoughts on a variety of subjects, so he can cross them off his ‘to do’ list.

Sowell is brilliant, and to the dismay of many, a black conservative, which makes him persona non grata in most serious discussions about social and political policy. Especially in enlightened places like Maine.  Would that I could spend an internship under his tutelage.

Here’s hoping he won’t take offense at my borrowing of his ‘random’ theme.

Random Observations on Town and School Budgeting:

  • Those advocating ever higher spending like to remind us that “you get what you pay for.”  You’re damn straight; if you increase teacher pay, you get higher paid teachers.  Further, if you increase school spending, you get a more expensive school system.
  • Accountability is a largely unknown concept, because the average taxpayer thinks this is what Certified Public Accountants study.  And that it rates their competence when they complete their studies.
  • Elected officials are the last to acknowledge there is no tooth fairy, and that free lunches have a cost.
  • There’s never enough money for ‘public servants’ to be good stewards of what we already own, by keeping existing physical assets in good repair.  But there’s always enough money to tear such assets down and build something new in their place.
    • Imagine if your private structure was crumbling and in danger of being condemned. You’d be seen as irresponsible, unprincipled, and someone who didn’t care about their neighbors.
    • If private property was managed the way public property is, ¾ of downtown Brunswick would have had to be torn down decades ago, especially those properties in the historic district overseen by the Village Review Board.  Half the houses in town would have to be torn down as well…those 40 years old or more.  Including yours, more than likely, if you happen to live in an ‘older’ home in town.
    • Corollary: there’s never enough public interest, let alone a mandate, that officials maintain existing facilities as a first priority, but always great public clamor to support ripping down and replacing existing facilities that were ALLOWED, consciously, to fall into disrepair.
    • In sum, government ‘staff’ is rewarded for letting things fall apart, instead of being penalized or held accountable.
  • Town officials, and the vast majority of their constituents, act as if no state or federal revenue sharing or subsidy comes out of local pockets.  Witness the resolution making its way through various town governing bodies regarding state revenue sharing and general purpose aid to education.
  • School system professionals are masters learning from masters on how to manipulate local leadership and voters.  Local union leadership learns from highly paid state union leadership, which learns from even higher paid national union leadership.
    • You, the local taxpayer, learns from no-one.  You have no one advocating for you.
  • You can fool all of the people some of the time; and you can fool some of the people all of the time.
    • Sadly, you can fool enough of the people most of the time to get them to support shooting themselves in the foot.  Or, if you prefer, most of the people enough of the time.
  • All congress critters and elected state officials are sons-a-bitches, except ours, who are OUR sons-a-bitches.
  • “What belongs to you, you tend to take care of; what belongs to no one or everyone tends to fall into disrepair.” (Thanks to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy)
    • Which leads to the premise that tearing down buildings that were mis-managed into irrelevance and unusability is an “investment in our future.”
    • In Brunswick, look at the old town hall, the ‘Old High School;’ the Times Record  Building.  Now, watch Jordan Acres School, the Rec Center, the current Town Hall, Coffin Elementary School, and Brunswick Junior High School rise on the platform of the public chopping block.  All for ‘community pride.’  We gave away the beloved Longfellow School, criminally mismanaged care of Jordan Acres School, and now, because we couldn’t figure out how to keep Coffin and BJHS in serviceable condition, we need to replace them “for the children,” with zero repercussions for those responsible.  What’s more, just to prove how benevolent we are, we’re about to give away the Federal St. Rec Building to benefit the School Department.
  • You can govern, or you can spend.  The latter is a 10-1 favorite over the former.
  • Spending more always trumps courage, commitment, and stewardship.
  • “Tough choices” are only tough because officials embrace no immutable, rock solid principles.
  • “For the children” has about as much relevance as “for the taxpayer.”
    • It may be ‘for the children,’ but there’s no denying ‘it’s from the taxpayers.’
  • “Costs beyond our control” are almost without exception those approved in prior year actions.
  • The property tax is the most insidious, predatory form of taxation there is, because it is adjustable rate.
    • It ignores the scarcity of resources that is the fundamental law of economics.
    • Bring six worried mommies and a real estate agent to a municipal government meeting, and you can up the tax rate by 10% without even breathing heavy.
    • If the feds and state did the same thing, we’d all be penniless in a few years.
  • Government is the only form of human enterprise that has no competition, never goes out of business, or terminates employees for incompetence.
    • And no human enterprise more needs these influences and consequences for ineptness.
  • Government operated public schools have been declining in performance in national and international rankings for years, regardless of spending more and having smaller class size.
    • Thank goodness, in Brunswick we have the one exception.  I’m confident that YOUR town is similarly exempt from this characterization.
  • Henry Hazlitt’s ‘economics in one lesson’ reads as follows:
    • ‘The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”
    • Elected officials reject this lesson, along with the law of scarcity, as they rush to spend for the short term and to quiet the squeakiest wheels.
  • Mission creep is the order of the day; good intentions are the only justification required.
    • Schools are now soup kitchens, health clinics, social service providers, behavioral interventionists, and babysitters.
    • Town charters are as ignored as State and Federal Constitutions.
  • Proactive leadership and guidelines for budget preparation are to be eschewed for theatrical wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth in reaction to budget submissions, especially when it comes to school budgets.
    • This is the ‘leading from behind’ approach embraced elsewhere in our governance.  In this case, ‘leading from behind’ is ‘leading from a corner.’

Pem Schaeffer is a retired Business Development Leader who spent his career in defense related high technology.  He blogs at The Other Side of Brunswick.  Contact him at  Or, if you prefer, buy his lunch at the next MHPC event in Portland.


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