My sisters and I were raised on fatherly aphorisms, the same ones he had been raised on: The best grease is elbow grease; If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right; Know what you’re going to do before you do it; Never say I can’t do it. There were more, but you get the theme.
I was thinking about dad’s aphorisms while pondering the city road debates that have raged for decades in the community I lived in for twenty years.
The long running complaint was their poor condition. Today’s city leaders were held accountable for poor decisions, made long ago, to overlay as cheaply as possible deteriorating streets and unused streetcar rails on the grounds that cost conscious conservative leadership was saving the people from higher taxation. As the decades rolled on, the cheap solution began to fail, aided by city councils that kept maintenance overhead as low as possible. Huffing with disgust, morning coffee conversations and letters to the editor blasted incompetent city leaders and staff, demanding to know why it was allowed to happen, and asserting that, had they been in charge, it would have been done right the first time.
About ten years ago the public discontent with road conditions rose high enough for the city to implement a decade long plan to repair and replace aging infrastructure: water and sewer mains, bridge and streets, doing it right this time. It was widely supported and very popular – for a while. As predictable as fog in December, public voices began to complain about road construction all the time everywhere. It was inconvenient, hurt some businesses, and costs were “out of control” – they weren’t. The usual voices began to sing a new tune: “Our streets are good enough. We don’t need the best in the west. Good enough is good enough. A few bumps and potholes are OK. We don’t want to pay for infrastructure we may not live to use.”
In other words, some portion of the current tax paying public was willing to repeat the short-sighted, do it on the cheap mistakes of the past, laying the burden of doing it right on some future generation.
It’s one small example from one small city, but it exemplifies the attitudes of members of Congress who think spending as little as possible to patch together a deteriorating national infrastructure is good enough. To them, new ways of understanding what infrastructure is, along with the technologies that define it, is an unaffordable boondoggle. While not in the majority, they have the ability to stop more ambitious plans for doing it right. Their patch it up to be good enough mentality heralds the predictable decline of the nation’s ability to compete in world markets, provide citizens with greater economic opportunity, and erode overall quality of life, all in the name of conservative fiscal responsibility.
They seem unable to comprehend the idea that it’s a guaranteed high return investment to spend generously repairing and replacing old infrastructure, while building new infrastructure to meet new needs of the nation.
The do it on the cheap crowd has been aided by answers to an annual Gallup Poll question: Is the government doing too much or not enough? Fifty-two percent of respondents say the government is doing too much, which is about what they say every year. Which government? What is too much? What is not enough? Those are not questions that get answered in the media, and for good reason. They’re difficult to dig out of the data, if they’re there at all.
I’m a tad pessimistic about the outcome. Biden’s infrastructure plans are much needed and almost too late in coming. Initial popularity is too easily undermined by scary stories about debt and taxes that have little merit. The nation has struggled since Reagan and the Silent Majority (that was neither silent nor the majority) with two incompatible ideas. One is that small government and low taxes are the most important protections of American individualism, defense spending excluded. The other is that the United States is and must remain the strongest, most advanced nation on earth.
The two ideas cannot both be right any more than cheap street repairs in small cities can serve the needs of a thriving economic and cultural future for generations to come.
Once upon a time America claimed it had a continent spanning manifest destiny to become One Nation with liberty and justice for all. Fingers were crossed behind the back to reserve to states the right to act as independent countries as much as possible (as in Texas, A Whole Other Country). It never worked well, and works not at all today if we want to have a strong United States of America. In the 21st century we are either going to be One Nation in which national needs are met with a federal response, or we begin the slow decline of every preceding empire until we go down in history, not as Rome, but as the Ottomans: too decadent, too cheap, too politically corrupt. Trump set us on that path. His enduring presence and faithful followers suggest the process may be accelerating, aided by McConnell, Manchin and the like who put lust for personal power above the good of the nation.