No New Taxes!

2002, my last winter in Minnesota, was a pretty bleak one for progressives. Paul Wellstone was locked in a tight race with Norm Coleman, took a lead in the polls after he defied conventional wisdom and voted against the war, and then died in a plane crash. Somehow, Coleman went from commercials showing Wellstone next to Bin Laden, to commercials with Enya playing, saying he would carry on Wellstone’s message, and won. In the Governor’s race to replace Jesse Ventura, a nice sounding Minnesota native, Republican Tim Pawlenty, crushed the Democrat. And all over the State, GOP State Reps were signing a pledge from the Taxpayer’s League of Minnesota, swearing up and down that they wouldn’t raise taxes. Pawlenty, that nice sounding guy, signed on too.

In that last year, I didn’t pay that much attention that much to local politics; Minnesota was never really ‘home’ the way Philly was, I cared much more about Broad Street than Hennepin Avenue. So, I finished school, and spent a lot of time rowing on the Mississippi. Same routine every evening: Drive home from work, launch, start rowing upriver, and turnaround right before the 35W bridge.

When the bridge collapsed in Minnesota, I heard that Pawlenty had just vetoed a bill that would raise the gas tax to pay for infrastructure renewal. Obviously, raising the gas tax this year would not have saved that bridge; but it is undeniable that the GOP was basically trying to get by without reinvesting in the State. I immediately thought back to that damn pledge, how much it seemed to grip the state GOP, and how much the whole thing reminded me of Pennsylvania. Not just in the fact that we have far, far more crumbling infrastructure than Minnesota. But more in the sense that Minnesota, which has a generally good government and high quality of life, was so gripped by anti-tax fever, that it started to lose the belief that government should invest in its citizens.

In Pennsylvania, out of the earshot of people in Philly, a similar anti-tax campaign has been waged recently by the far-right, well-funded, Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania. They have aired a bunch of ads ( like this one) in various parts of the State, threatening legislators who would dare think of investing money in things like the health of Pennsylvanians, or education, or mass transit, or any other crrrrazy idea. And, to this point, they have been reasonably successful, stopping so far the Governor’s push to ensure every Pennsylvanian can have health care, that the State invest in renewable energy, and so forth.

We may have passed a bill to fix bridges, but plenty of things are failing in Pennsylvania. And while the failure of our government may or may not show up in crumbling bridges, it assuredly shows up elsewhere. In people suffering- and dying- from a lack of healthcare. In crappy schools that fail to produce productive citizens. In a lack of foresight to identify industries- like renewable energy- that will produce good paying jobs in the future.

A bridge may not have fallen in Pennsylvania, but it might as well have. Our government is failing to re-invest in its citizens, and individually and collectively, we are all going to pay the price.

User fees

Right now, all federally-funded roads + bridges are repaired using money from a trust fund established in the 1950s in the Eisenhower administration, along w/the Interstate system. Right now, this fee is collected from a fee of $0.182/gal on gas sold at the pump. And, like the Social Security trust fund, this trust fund is also in danger of going bankrupt. The problem is, the transit fund is in imminent danger of bankruptcy.

Fortunately, the solution to this problem is mind-blowingly simple: raise the tax. Even a relatively small increase of 5 cents/gal would provide far more money for infrastructure repairs.

Unfortunately, it probably won't happen, due to the anti-tax obsession in this country. Worse yet, the amount of money required to get all the nation's bridges up to 'Good' status would be ~ $1.6 *trillion* over the next 5 years (according to a study by the American Society of Civil Engineers).

So, in effect, people like Gov. Pawlenty are willing to gamble the public's safety against the near-certainty that bridges will collapse. And they will do so. The average life expectancy of a bridge is ~40-50 years. Many Interstate bridges in this country date from the early 1960s- putting them right on the edge of their expected lives.

This is only part of a larger crisis. Our overall infrastructure is disintegrating- electrical (remember the massive blackout of '05?), water (see all the water main breaks in Philly), roads (see above), air traffic control (the systems largely date from the '50s and '60s), + others. Why? Simple: either we don't want to raise taxes to pay for the upgrades, or the profit motive makes maintenance unprofitable (as in the case of the electrical system).

These things don't fix themselves. Leave them go long enough, and the US could turn into an enormous country w/lots of weapons + a third world economy + basic infrastructure. We're already well on the way to a banana republic's economy; the infrastructure is rushing there as well.

-Z

Ah, but you fail to understand the free market system

Government spending is unnecessary. Government is inefficient.

When the time is right, some entrepreneur will step up and find a way to make a profit through providing the needed infrastructure. OK, maybe some folks will die in the meantime, but you can't have everything.

(Since raideradam seems to be on a hiatus from YPP, I thought I'd step in and fill the void.)

But government can be *extremely* effecient...

... especially if the goal is to hand out contracts to buddies + collect kickbacks. The GOP's great at making government work like that.

-Z

The Bridge Collapse and how things fail (and succeed).

How many times have you heard someone caution someone else about something, and they get a response like, "I've been doing it for years and it's been fine."

It's a common sense response, and it has a certain logic to it. The logic is about acceptable risk. If we all were completely risk averse, we'd never leave the house.

That said, I can't help but think that there is an assumption in public policy that things tend to get a little a worse or they get a little better. I'm going to contend that, in fact, things tend to change in one of three ways:
1) They stay the same.

2) They get a lot worse, all at once
3) They get a lot better, all at once.

Just like you can go running at night for years safely until the night you get mugged or beaten up or worse.

Just like you can have unsafe sex without consequence time and again, until you catch something or get "a little pregnant."

On the other side, very few people ease out of smoking or drug abuse. They give it up all at once.

People who live a life of crime don't do a little less crime. They turn their lives around 180 or they don't.

The same is true of public policy. Bridges don't break a little. They go. They don't shake off one or two cars, they lose them all.

Social problems don't slowly improve. Either too little resources go in and nothing really happens or enough goes in and a transformation occurs.

Of course there are exceptions and I'm sure some of you loveable correctors out there will leap to point them out, but on balance I think the bridge collapse in Minnesota is a moment for us to understand change better: we can do something substantive about the problems we can see coming or we can continue to watch again and again as disasters come on all at once, like an avalanche.

We're already facing recession conditions because everyone ignored the trickle and then the stream of home loss and mortgage delinquency brought on by predatory lending, but now it's snow-balling into lender bankruptcy, perhaps bank bankruptcy and soon general financial shock because policy makers refused to do enough to turn it around.

---
BradyDale OnLine
The R.I.I.C. Blog
The Philadelphia Unemployment Project

A main worry

As I said, many bridges in the US were built at roughly the same time, the early '60s or so. This puts them towards the end of their expected lifespan (pun intended), and suggests that a whole lot of them could fail at once.

This would be disastrous both on the level of lives lost + money to replace all of them at once. After all, it's always cheaper to repair the leaky pipe before it starts spewing water all over the basement. Unfortunately, the US is like homeowner who ignores the leak, hoping that it will just go away on its own.

The leak won't fix itself, and the pipe will burst; it's a matter of when, not if. Unfortunately for people like those killed when the 35W Bridge failed, though, infrastructure upgrade projects aren't 'sexy.' Necessary, absolutely; sexy enough to make selling tax hikes to pay for them, no.

-Z

Our fearless leader speaks...

... be afraid, be very afraid.

president bush has stated that there will be no hike in the Federal gas tax to pay for repairs to the Interstate system. Quote the moron:

"The way it seems to have worked is that each member on that (Transportation) committee gets to set his or her own priorities first," Bush said. "That's not the right way to prioritize the people's money. Before we raise taxes, which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities."

Translation: let the bridges collapse; I'll just fly over 'em like I did over New Orleans after the hurricanes destroyed it.

Schmuck. I would call him a moron, but that would be an insult to blameless morons everywhere,
-Z

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