Rep. Jim Walsh: The post-COVID paradigm shift

A growing chorus of elite and establishment voices in Olympia chants about a “new normal” that the people of Washington will need to accept in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. We agree that things are going to be different. But the “normal” will be “new” for Olympia as much as for working Washingtonians.

So, what’s the Olympia establishment’s idea of this new normal? New taxes.

Washington State Department of Transportation head Roger Millar recently told his staff and the media that WSDOT is “losing” about “$100 million a month” because the Governor’s COVID lockdown has reduced the amount of gas and ferry tickets people are buying. The solution the WSDOT director planted in the media: A higher gasoline tax or a new per-mile vehicle tax.

About the same time that WSDOT was hinting about those new taxes, a woman named Katie Wilson — the “General Secretary” of the Seattle-based Transit Riders Union—published an op-ed titled “Coronavirus shows us why WA has always needed an income tax.” In addition to creating a new state income tax, the General Secretary wrote:

“Here in Washington state, our ability to weather a downturn is hampered by our chart-topping regressive tax system.… Seattle must take the lead in implementing a new progressive business tax… Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales have put forward one proposal for how to do this and how best to direct the revenue.”

These are “old normal” political tactics. Part of an old paradigm: State bureaucrats and Seattle radicals plead poverty and press for new or higher taxes to grow their fiefdoms. These bureaucrats and radicals need to understand that they—not just Washington’s small businesses and working people—also have to get used to the new normal. What some people call a “paradigm shift.” 

The old paradigm was to cry “Crisis!” and count on a growing state economy to provide more tax revenue. That isn’t going to work anymore, as we struggle to reopen from the COVID lockdown. In the new paradigm, state taxes—if anything—will need to be cut. No increases, no new state taxes. State bureaucracies and radical organizations will need to adjust their expectations accordingly.

Just like people who’ve been out of work for months have had to.

The old paradigm was based on decades of steady growth in state budgets. The only exception to all that growth came after the 2008 recession, when state budgets were cut by about 8 percent over two budget cycles. Based on the early estimates of current drops in state tax revenue resulting from the Governor’s COVID lockdown, deeper cuts will be needed. In the range of 10 percent on the low end, as much as 20 percent—or even more—on the high end. The elites and establishments of the old paradigm consider the post-2008 budget cuts gut-wrenching and scandalous. But those cuts will seem minor compared to the hard decisions and true gut-wrenching that lies ahead.

The post-COVID paradigm shift, toward smaller budgets and doing more with less money, is going to be a shock for the political establishments in Olympia and Seattle. But it will be a welcome relief to Washington’s working families, who’ve been suffering in recent weeks and months.

This is how paradigm shifts, and new realities usually work.

The term “paradigm shift” comes from the world of science. The American physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn popularized the term in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn was a realist—but also an optimist. He argued that, when an older paradigm is replaced by a newer one, the new paradigm is better. Not just different.

However, Kuhn warned that the language and concepts of different paradigms can’t always be translated from one to another. That’s what we face in this state now: The elites and establishments of the old paradigm in Olympia and Seattle have a hard time understanding — even finding the words to talk about — what lies ahead. They don’t comprehend it, so they retreat to their familiar rhetoric and strategies. They retreat to the comfort they felt in the old paradigm.

But that retreat won’t work in the new normal.

We can’t leave a discussion of Thomas Kuhn and paradigm shifts without mentioning one interesting interpretation. In a 2015 retrospective on Kuhn’s work, the philosopher Martin Cohen argued that scientific knowledge is less certain than often portrayed in the media—and that science and knowledge generally are not the “very sensible and reassuringly solid sort of affair” that people unfamiliar with Kuhn’s work expect. Cohen illustrated this point with the example of media-hyped “‘pandemic’ alarms, which turn out eventually to be little more than scares.”

That was written in 2015. But it’s timely today.

Whatever the cause, the paradigm in this state is shifting. The new normal doesn’t mean more financial suffering for working Washingtonians. It will mean a major fiscal reckoning of the state government’s budgets. 

State Representative Jim Walsh, 19th Legislative District
428 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 786-7806 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000