Shakespeare, Vulgar Metaphors and the Golden Hydrant

Written by Jeff Johnson on September 30, 2009. Posted in General

Minnesota 2020’s Highbrow Critique of the Golden Fire Hydrant

Earlier this month I presented a Golden Hydrant Award to the Property Tax Study Project through which the county uses taxpayer dollars each year to lobby for higher taxes on those same taxpayers. The Project is essentially a contract with one individual, Jeff Van Wychen, who is a fellow with the progressive think tank Minnesota 2020 (founded by DFL gubernatorial candidate Matt Entenza).

Recently, John Van Hecke, Minnesota 2020’s Executive Director, posted a critique of my post:

When a research study reveals a disconcerting truth, readers can challenge and refute the report’s findings or they can fallaciously attack it. I’m always disappointed when an elected official chooses the latter course. I’m especially disappointed when a leader tips into vulgar pandering.

Hennepin County Commissioner and conservative public policy activist Jeff Johnson regularly strides into divisive territory, advancing a conservative policy vision by attacking the public, operational expression of community values. “Hennepin County Taxpayer Watchdog,” Johnson’s campaign blog that appears to be a regular element of his official communications strategy, periodically bestows “the Golden Fire Hydrant” award on whomever he feels is most at odds with his conservative worldview, or at least as it relates to Hennepin County and Minnesota.

That’s fine. Really. Strongly expressed public opinions are essential to our democracy. I’d rather Commissioner Johnson share his views than keep them to himself. He is being, in this regard, a responsible elected official and a good citizen.

Closer reading, however, raises an uncomfortable question. Does he really need to pander in order to advocate his conservative public policy agenda?

First, the “watchdog/fire hydrant metaphor.” Commissioner Johnson wishes us to understand that the responsible exercise and delivery of community services is equivalent to a dog urinating on a fire hydrant.

Actually, no. I believe the irresponsible exercise and delivery of community services is equivalent to a dog urinating on a fire hydrant. That’s the whole point of my silly little award (and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s nothing more than a silly little award).

I recognize there is a risk in attempting humor (especially humor regarding dogs peeing) when discussing politics. The risk, of course, is that some people won’t find it funny. I can live with that. I just believe that most of us in politics – of every political persuasion – take ourselves entirely too seriously. Having a marginal sense of humor occasionally helps to address that.

This is hearty Anglo-Saxon language stuff. Johnson is using urination both literally and analogously to communicate contempt and derision. He’s hardly alone. Shakespeare frequently salted his plays with bodily function and discharge references. In the Tempest, we find, “I do smell horse piss; at which my nose is in great indignation.” In the Merry Wives of Windsor, “Send me a cool rut-time, Jove, or who can blame me to piss my tallow.”

FINALLY, someone figured out that the Golden Fire Hydrant is based on Shakespeare!

Commissioner Johnson awarded a “Golden Fire Hydrant” to the Hennepin County Property Tax Study; non-sober alcoholic housing programs; solar panels on the Hennepin County Public Works Building in Medina; a public health sex education program in the Richfield and Brooklyn Center schools; and Hennepin County garbage burner landscaping. Johnson determines award eligibility. Criteria are a little vague. He designates “those spending programs or projects that interfere with our ability to adequately fund the basics of Hennepin County government.”

It appears that Commissioner Johnson is more interested in creating and perpetuating distractions than he is in forward-looking public policy.

In reality, I’m most interested in informing taxpayers about how their money is being spent. As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, Hennepin County does much good work, but I do get a little tired of hearing how we have no money to perform basic county functions because our evil Republican Governor has cut county funding. Once we stop spending on programs or endeavors that don’t contribute to our basic county functions, then there might be an argument. Until then…

Tuesday, in his most recent blog post, Johnson lowered the public discourse bar a bit further, suggesting that Hennepin County’s Property Tax Study “is giving the finger to the taxpayers of Hennepin County as it spends taxpayer money to lobby the legislature for increased taxes on those same taxpayers.”

You read correctly. Commissioner Johnson employs a vulgar metaphor invoking sexual intercourse exercised within a power construct. I think Johnson’s language says more about Johnson’s values framework than the criticism he levels at the property tax study. Maybe things are different in Detroit Lakes, Johnson’s hometown, than Walnut Grove, my hometown, but “giving the finger” isn’t considered appropriate language in public discourse.

I have to admit, I’ve never before employed a vulgar metaphor invoking sexual intercourse exercised within a power construct, but it felt kind of good. In reality, I simply wanted to point out that spending taxpayers’ money to lobby for higher taxes is rather insulting to those taxpayers. The vulgar metaphor invoking sexual intercourse within a power construct that I used was just another attempt to add little levity to the discourse. Appropriate? Maybe not, but it certainly is a pretty apt metaphor for what we’re doing to taxpayers.

Johnson isn’t keen to discuss the Property Tax Study’s findings.

Correct. As I mention in the post, there is plenty for one to dispute with the reasoning and conclusion behind the theme “Minnesota has a revenue problem, not a spending problem”, but I was honoring the Project not for Van Wychen’s curious conclusions, but for Hennepin County’s annual decision to use taxpayer money for a study (that comes to the same conclusion year after year) to lobby for higher taxes.

He’s more interested in belittling and attacking the report’s author, independent tax analyst Jeff Van Wychen. Johnson correctly notes that Van Wychen is a Tax Policy Fellow at Minnesota 2020. Van Wychen’s work explores tax policy’s complexity in great detail and may be accessed by clicking on this link.

I would expect that someone who receives over $100,000 every year from taxpayers to write a report could handle some small level of criticism from those who believe we’re wasting that money. Here’s the extent to which I “attacked” and “belittled” Van Wychen (who I never mentioned by name in my post, by the way):

“This year’s report carried the headline: “Minnesota has a revenue problem, not a spending problem.” That headline was based on a chart that showed the years 2003 through 2008 and a corresponding drop in state revenue for each of those five years.

There is much to dispute with respect to the graph and headline (such as why we started with 2003 instead of, say, 2000 or 1998 – which would have shown a different trend; or why federal dollars were not included in the state revenue measurement as those are all taxpayer dollars, as well), but I won’t go there. My real issue is with the bizarre conclusion from the questionable graph.

During our discussion on this issue, I asked why state revenues had been purportedly decreasing the past few years. The answer: Businesses are struggling or going out of business and individuals are making less or losing their jobs. So….LET’S TAX THEM SOME MORE??!!


Frankly, I’m more disappointed, embarrassed even, with Johnson’s remarks than I am upset. I’ve listened to him speak on the State House of Representative’s floor and in other venues and he’s capable of much better declarations than “I’ve got a bird here that I’d like to flip you.”

There’s that vulgar metaphor invoking sexual intercourse exercised within a power construct again. I’ve got to stop doing that.

Unless, of course, Johnson’s goal is to avoid the Property Tax Study’s findings altogether and thus avoid its central observation that “Minnesota has a revenue problem, not a spending problem.”

I met John Van Hecke once and kind of liked him (some of my best friends are liberals, you know), so I’m disappointed that I’ve disappointed him. I’ll eventually get over it, though, because I apparently don’t take myself quite as seriously as some folks do.

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