If you are looking for an uplifting, “ain’t we great” post appropriate to the 4th of July, you probably need to stop reading now.
I began my reading this morning with Kurt Anderson’s Op Ed in the New York Times, on the downside of liberty. Anderson revisited the historic American tension between individualism and community, and concluded–in concert with many other contemporary observers–that Americans have confused a robust defense of individual rights with a wholesale abandonment of our civic obligations to the wider community. He argues that we have lost the ability to distinguish between individual rights and self-interested greed.
Anderson points to a cultural phenomenon. Thanks to the recent weather, I have been pondering a structural one.
As anyone who isn’t spending time in the arctic knows, we’ve been having an unprecedented heat wave. Much of the nation has also been battered by ferocious storms, and television news has been featuring visible evidence of the damage–especially shots of the downed power lines responsible for a massive loss of electricity. As of last night’s newscast, more than a million homes remained without power. Elderly people and children, especially, are at risk without air conditioning.
My question is simple: why don’t we bury our power lines? My answer is equally simple: because we have a political/economic structure that privileges short-term savings over long-term quality–a structure that rewards those who are penny-wise and pound foolish.
It costs more up front to bury our utilities. It’s cheaper–initially– to string lines. But not only does burying those lines improve the appearance of our cities and towns, it is much cheaper in the long run. It doesn’t take extraordinary storms to down the lines; more predictable weather also takes a toll. Over a period of years, utilities will more than save the extra dollars spent to bury the lines and consumers will enjoy more dependable service.
This same “penny wise, pound foolish” mind-set permeates our public services. Go to Europe (yes, I know, it is heresy to suggest that other countries might do some things better than we do) and walk on granite pavements that have lasted longer than most of our cities. Expensive to build, much less expensive to maintain and replace. Look at the current rush to sell off public assets–Toll Roads, parking meters, even the City-County Building–rather than spend what is necessary to maintain those assets for future generations.
In business, the triumph of the shareholder and manager over the entrepreneur-owner has meant that the next quarter’s bottom line is privileged over the long-term best interests of the enterprise. It’s more important to return an extra twenty cents per share now than to invest in improvements that will benefit the business ten years hence. In politics, it has always been the case that “long term” means “until the next election.” So we have the ridiculous spectacle of the State of Indiana returning $100 to each taxpayer rather than applying those funds to necessary improvements in education or infrastructure that won’t yield such immediate gratification.
Maybe it’s fitting that we have fireworks on the 4th of July. Children love fireworks, and we seem to have become a nation of children.