London’s Bridge Isn’t the Only One Falling Down

WFYI recently shared some sobering news with Hoosier drivers:

 Indiana’s bridges were built to last 75 years, and half are at least 50 years old.  INDOT Commissioner Karl Browning says about 7 percent are in what he calls “poor condition” – not that they’re unsafe, just that it will cost a lot to fix them.

At current funding levels, that percentage will rise to 12.5 percent in 10 years. In order to keep the percentage of bridges in poor condition at about 8 percent, Browning says funding needs to increase about $60 million a year for the next 10 years.  And he says an ideal level is less than 3 percent of bridges in poor condition.

“And in order to achieve that, that’s nearly a hundred million dollars more a year than we have available to spend today for the next 20 years,” Browning said.

I think it was Eric Hoffer who said a civilization should be measured not by the buildings and monuments its citizens erect, but by their maintenance of the built environment–especially its infrastructure. He was right.

Our crumbling roads and bridges testify to how short-sighted and selfish we Americans have become. We don’t plant trees that our grandchildren will sit under. (If we can’t enjoy it tomorrow, then screw it!) We complain when we are asked to invest in public goods that will serve future generations–schools, libraries, public health. When we do pave our roads, we do it on the cheap. (Let the next Mayor/Governor do it over.)

The irony is, we could have addressed the Great Recession by using the cheap money and abundant labor to fix our decaying infrastructure. We could have put thousands of people back to work, ended the recession more quickly, and improved the deteriorated roads, bridges and electrical grids that we will hand off to our children and theirs.

Worse– we all know that when the bridges fail and people are killed or injured, the “fiscal hawks” who’ve been waging war on the very idea of government, the same people who’ve adamantly refused to give that government the resources it requires in order to function properly, will blame…wait for it….government.

I get so discouraged…..

‘Tis the Season…for Culture War Stupidity

According to the Christian Science Monitor,

Wishing students “Merry Christmas” is now protected in Texas public schools thanks to a recently minted Merry Christmas law, which allows students, teachers, and administrators to say traditional holiday greetings on campus….

The bill, signed into law last year by Gov. Rick Perry, allows religious scenes and symbols, like a nativity or Christmas tree, to be displayed on school property. It also allows schools to teach about religious holidays, including their history, and include religious references and music in school performances.

Well, isn’t that special?

Can we deconstruct this embarrassing piece of theater? To the extent this measure purports to allow things that would violate the Establishment Clause, it is totally ineffective. (There’s this pesky little thing about the U.S. Constitution–it trumps local laws.) Christmas trees are fine, but nativity scenes (unless surrounded by symbols of Chanukah and Kwanzaa and other artifacts of winter’s seasonal celebrations) remain legally off-limits.

To the extent this law is inconsistent with the Establishment Clause, it is null and void. But more to the point, everything else “protected” by this legislative display of civic ignorance is already protected by the Free Exercise Clause. 

Teachers can already teach about religion, religious holidays, and the role of religion in history. Music teachers and art teachers are free to include religious music and art in their lessons–indeed, it would be difficult to introduce students to either discipline without recognizing the role religion has played in the evolution of those arts. (Granted, a “Christmas Chorale” composed exclusively of devotional hymns–no “Frosty the Snowman” or “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” to leaven the religiosity –is unlikely to pass Constitutional muster, but otherwise, no problem.)

Excuse me, but…those of you who are ostentatiously wearing the label “Christian”–can we talk?

I am getting really, really tired of your whining, tired of your petulant assertions that if you  can’t force everyone else to acknowledge your beliefs (in language that you deem appropriate) and genuflect to your observances (in recognition of their superiority), you’re being picked on.

Read my lips: There is no “War” against Christmas. Nice people wishing you a happy holiday are not trying to destroy the country and/or deprive you of your cultural heritage. They are just being nice. They are being thoughtful. Respectful of others.

You might try that sometime.

You might try acting….oh, what’s the word? Christian.


Let’s Make a Deal

Let’s talk about dealmaking, crony capitalism style. The Atlantic reports

Between 2007 and 2012, GE secured more than $16 billion worth of federal contracts, which might have something to do with the fact that it spent $150 million on lobbying during that period.

According to the article, the Sunlight Foundation recently examined the activities of 200  politically active for-profit corporations between the years 2007 and 2012.  Between lobbying and campaign contributions, those 200 companies spent $5.8 billion to influence government. In return, they got more than $4.4 trillion in federal business and support. (It may have been more; according the the Foundation, federal record-keeping isn’t as precise as we might wish.)

For comparison’s sake, $4.4 trillion is more than the amount that Social Security paid out to roughly 50 million beneficiaries over the same six-year period.

It’s interesting. So-called “deficit hawks” like Paul Ryan are constantly looking for ways to cut “entitlements”– social programs that benefit large numbers of American citizens. There is a lot of discussion of the costs of those programs. There is  far less discussion about the amount of taxes that most Americans have paid toward those costs, about  whether ordinary Americans should be able to expect a reasonable return on that tax “investment,” and what such a “reasonable return” might look like.

There is even less discussion of the appropriate “return on investment” for monies spent on campaign contributions and lobbying, or about the possibility that the tax dollars paid under the government contracts secured by campaign contributors exceed the value of the services being rendered.

When Social Security was established, it was sold as insurance. That “deal” was simple: Workers would pay taxes on their earnings, those taxes would be invested and kept safe, and government would pay them a monthly income in their old age. We can argue about the sufficiency of that income, the fairness of the tax, the mandatory nature of the program, whether social security is really an insurance program or welfare…all sorts of things. But lawmakers chosen by We the People bickered and argued and ultimately voted to make that deal.

I don’t remember a similar vote on the appropriate level of  “quid pro quo” payable for campaign contributions….



Crime Control: We Need to Learn from the Big Apple

The New York Times recently reported on the state of criminal activity in the Big Apple.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Tuesday that a city his opponents once said would grow more dangerous under his watch had, in fact, become even safer.

Robberies, considered the most telling indicator of street crime, are down 14 percent across New York City from last year. Grand larcenies — including the thefts of Apple devices that officials said drove an overall crime increase two years ago — are also down, by roughly 3 percent.

And after a record-low 335 homicides in 2013, the city has seen 290 killings in the first 11 months of this year, a number unheard-of two decades ago.

Indianapolis, by contrast, has had 130 murders through November 25th. In the 2010 census, Indianapolis had approximately 830, 000 residents; New York City has an estimated 8,500,000. In other words, we have not quite a tenth of the population, but nearly half as many homicides.

According to official reports, it isn’t just New York (although the Big Apple is among the leaders in the decline.) Homicide rates in cities all across the country are falling.

Ours aren’t. The question is: why?


The Profit Motive

One of the many troubling features of our current civic landscape is the steady erosion of boundaries between sectors. Thanks to “privatization,” or–more accurately–contracting and outsourcing, the lines between public, private and nonprofit have steadily blurred.

The problem is that different sectors have different purposes/missions. For-profit companies exist to make money; nonprofit organizations are mission-driven, and the public sector is supposed to serve the public and safeguard the common good. These descriptions obviously gloss over the many nuances in each sector, but they are a serviceable shorthand.

When the profit motive characterizes all of the sectors, our society no longer works the way it should.

I get “paper” newspapers on Sunday mornings, and look forward to reading the news old-style. Last Sunday, I opened the Indianapolis Star to discover that it had engaged in actual journalism, in a story about charter schools established by ITT.

The strongest selling point of the Early Career Academy, a tax-funded charter school scheduled to open next year in Indianapolis, is that its high school students will earn an associate degree free of charge.

But the degree comes with a catch: The credits from that degree likely will not transfer to any major university in the state if the students want to pursue four-year degrees.

There is, however, one institution guaranteed to accept the credits — the for-profit college sponsoring the charter school.

ITT, you may recall, is being sued in several states by individuals and the federal government, who allege that it provides an inferior education for which it charges exorbitant tuition, and employs unethical, high-pressure sales techniques to “lock students into an education most are unable to finish and into loans many are unable to pay off.”

When I opened my Sunday New York Times, the front-page story was even worse–the headline was “Energy Firms in Secretive Alliance with Republican Attorneys General” and the article detailed the cozy–and highly unethical–arrangements whereby  state Attorneys General are conspiring with, and carrying the baggage for, fossil fuel companies that have “generously” contributed large sums to their campaigns.  They are suing the EPA and otherwise resisting federal regulations meant to protect air and water quality–purportedly on behalf of their states, but in actuality on behalf of their political patrons.

There are plenty of lessons we can take from these revelations. (I’d probably start with the premise that for-profit educational institutions should automatically be viewed with extreme suspicion.) Certainly, these revelations are more evidence–as if we needed it–that the role of money in politics is toxic and corrupting.

However, I think there is a larger warning lurking in these, and similar examples of venal behavior. When we fail to recognize the different ethical obligations that attach to the different sectors–when every organization and every job is focused on a fiscal bottom line–the structures we have built to be complementary become competitive and corrupt.

We have spent the past thirty-plus years demeaning and “hollowing out” the enterprise we call government, and in the process, we have lost  the very concept of a public. “Public service” is an oxymoron. Well over half of our purportedly nonprofit/voluntary organizations are so totally dependent upon government grants and contracts that they have become unrecognized arms of the state. Meanwhile, we have idealized private enterprise and the private sector beyond recognition, delegitimizing the rules and regulations that are necessary to ensure a level economic playing field and a healthy, sustainable economy.

The result is on the front pages of our newspapers, and it isn’t pretty.