Jay Gonzalez Taps the Awesomeness of Anti-Harvardness

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2018/09/20/jay-gonzalez-taps-the-awesomeness-of-anti-harvardness/

Jay Gonzalez has done two smart things this past week.

The Democratic nominee for governor may be far behind Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker in the polls, but for a few days, at least, he has had him on the defensive.

In the Merrimack Valley natural gas explosions of last Friday, Gonzalez thinks he’s found a potential wedge issue against the governor.

Gonzalez says he’d replace all the board members of the state’s Department of Public Utilities because they’re too cozy with the utilities they’re supposed to regulate. It’s a clever charge, because even if he offers little or no evidence for it, this being Massachusetts it has a certain ring of truth.

Baker’s default position is to defend the bureaucracy he leads. That’s what he did when the state auditor criticized the state’s social-services agency in December 2017, and that’s what he did with Gonzalez’s criticism of the state’s public utilities department on Monday. Neither approach is attractive.

Baker’s vision and charisma are limited, so his case for re-election is built on his reputation for competence. If Gonzalez can dent that reputation, he might make headway with an electorate that generally distrusts state government.

The second bit of cleverness is calling for taxing Harvard. Oh sure, technically it’s a tax on the endowments of the nine wealthiest colleges and universities in Massachusetts. But in the public mind that long phrase can be whittled down to two syllables:  Harvard.

Baker couldn’t engage in me-tooism on that score (or any other), so naturally he had to say he’s against it, claiming that the colleges use their gargantuan endowments to provide financial aid for students.

Next he’ll be telling us that if we tax their endowments, these schools will start turning out rich elitist snobs.

Now the merits of Gonzalez’s proposal can be argued in various ways. Like most taxes, this one would likely come with unintended consequences. Taxes aren’t causes for celebration, since they rob the private economy of capital, and thus lead to inefficiencies and reduced growth. In addition, pro-government analysts tend to base their projections on static analysis – “if we tax them this much, we’ll get that much, because that’s how much they’re making now” – instead of taking into account likely decreases in the taxee’s revenue if government puts its thumb on the scale.

Also:  Can’t help thinking this is a back-door approach to taxing churches, something secular leftists have been itching to do for some time. “We already tax non-religious nonprofits,” the argument will go in a few years. “Why shouldn’t we tax religious nonprofits? Thomas Jefferson said we have to!”

But in purely political terms, Gonzalez’s approach is catchy. Harvard’s current endowment is so big that it could bury the entire landmass of Mongolia in 10-dollar bills and still buy free ice cream for all the survivors.

Harvard is the least sympathetic institution in Massachusetts. The funniest part of the story is the revelation that the Gonzalez campaign, according to State House News Service, “consulted with … economists whom the campaign declined to name because they work for universities that would be affected by the tax.”

Translation:  Even Harvard’s own employees don’t sympathize with Harvard.

That leads to an ancient political aphorism:

No one ever lost an election by bashing Harvard too much.

Yet if Baker is really leading 55-28, as a new Suffolk University poll says, Gonzalez will need an avalanche of beat-you-this-week proposals and attacks to avoid sending a we-accomplished-so-much mass email message to supporters the morning after the election. But he has a start.

A successful underdog insurgency needs one of two things:  disaster on the incumbent’s watch, and appealing punching bags. Both have appeared for Gonzalez this week.

Still, Gonzalez is unlikely to catch a wave with the Harvard tax because in his mind he has already spent it. He’s saying he’d use all the extra government cash to provide more free stuff and improvements to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority – a fine investment specimen if ever there was one.

If instead Gonzalez could say he would tax the rich colleges and use the money to reduce voters’ taxes, he might have a juggernaut.

But then he’d probably be a Republican.