Monday, November 16, 2015

A shaky foundation - Infrastructure built on the backs of the poor

For the past 20 years we've known there's a problem.  Bridges on the brink of toppling down, pothole infested roads and overcrowded freeways obsolete for the volume they handle from the day they open.

It's a problem of neglect.  One the pundits lay squarely on the backs of a gas tax that hasn't kept pace with inflation.  If only all those giant SUV's rumbling over the earth in the early part of the century had been paying another 5 cents a gallon there'd be no problem.

At least that's the argument.  One that proponents of raising the gas tax to fund public infrastructure find agreeable.  

On Sunday mornings I'm usually traveling over some of those very bridges and freeways that have benefited from public financing.  If I'm lucky I can catch the latest broadcast of the Intelligence squared debates.

This past week the topic was the gas tax with the advocates both for and against it. 

It's rare that I don't line up on one side or the other but this was one of those times.  
The arguments flew back and forth about the sorry state of the country's infrastructure.  That it's a sad state of affairs isn't in contention, the evidence isn't some abstraction it's physical.

What is in contention is how to pay for it.  Conservatives would rather see public funding go away entirely while liberal viewpoints contend that public infrastructure is one of the most basic of government functions.  

I didn't care the arguments of either side.  Not because I don't believe there isn't a problem, there is.  No it's another case of treating the symptom while ignoring the patient.

In this case the patient isn't roads and bridges it's the people being asked to pay to fix them.  

The problem with use taxes is that they weigh heaviest on those who can afford it least.  Sure a few extra bucks is nothing if fueling your ride has no more impact on your finances than your morning latte'.  Unfortunately we live in technologically advanced world dominated by backward thinking.

Dearly held beliefs like: no real work gets done unless it's in a cubicle or a fair wage should be dictated by business and not societal needs.  Even if the people you employ can't afford to buy any of your goods.

That's the disconnect.  The assumption that the answer to every problem involves heaping more suffering on those that can't afford it.  I've got a real problem with that even if the cause is just.  

It's just not realistic to accommodate every public project based on revenue streams that don't take into account the fortunes of those it would affect.   In discussions like these, however, it's always the same dire causation.  That being that funding hasn't kept up with inflation and the only fix is to make everybody pay more to fix the problem.

It drives me insane...

Public funding will NEVER keep up with inflation so long as the workaday Joe or Janet can't afford anything!  You know what else hasn't kept up with inflation?  Wages!  Back in 1988 I could afford a 1 bedroom apartment and keep 2 people safe and warm and dry on 15 grand a year with a car for each of them.  3 decades later you can still end up with that same wage with less than half the buying power.

It's an economic death spiral that far too many find themselves in when meager compensation forces them into the arms of a corrupt credit system just to make (inflationary adjusted) ends meet.  A system that by no accident enjoys a symbiotic relationship with financial interests whose fortunes are built on the hope of default and financial ruin of the powerless.

So when I hear the sad, sad tale of employers who claim they'd be put out of business if they had to pay a "living wage" I can hardly believe that anyone accepts their argument.  That being that paying the equivalent of a slave wage is not only necessary to the survival of their business but a core constituent of its success.

So long as that's the prevailing wisdom in this country there's no way that any discussion of the public good can't first address the inequity.  

Economic inequity is a root cause with many symptoms some of which show up in a crumbling infrastructure, high rates of credit default and sagging economies.  

Stop putting band aids on the economic equivalent of paper cuts and deal with the massive coronary that's going on.