Monday, July 30, 2012

Blinders, Part I

There were still horse-drawn carts when I grew up in Paris. The hooves made clopping sounds on the cobblestones, and the horses were not the sleek and shiny beasts of movies and race tracks. Instead, they were weary animals bedeviled by flies; they pulled loads of coal or cement or junk, and they wore blinders. I was told in school this was so they could only look straight ahead and not be overly concerned with what happened to their right or their left.

Recently, I’ve come to think the same thing is happening here to the leadership and population at large. We have blinders on; we do not want to be distracted from what lies directly before us, and because of this we’ve allowed a host of truly important issues to be merely discussed—endlessly—and not acted upon. 

Five overwhelming concerns leap to mind: gun control, infrastructure, the war on drugs, the financial rape of the average citizen, and the biggest bugaboo of them all, serious and effective political reform that would prod our openly somnolent public servants to action.

Gun control:  According to the Washington Post, mass murder by definition involves the killing of at least four victims in one incident. From 1976 to 2010, there were 645 mass murders—the overwhelming majority involving firearms—leaving behind the bodies of 2,949 men, women and children. 
That’s a lot of folks, folks. Our legislators have taken the easy way out, typified by a statement from Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, who told the press, “You can’t stop crazy people from doing crazy stuff.”  It’s interesting how such a figurative shrug-off works. By blaming crazy people, we can absolve ourselves of any responsibility for follow-up action. I’m reminded that World War I was set off by the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. I suppose Tester would have called the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, just another gun-totting crazy guy over whom we were powerless.
Thirty-four years of mass murders, of course, are a drop in the bucket compared to the everyday mass-killing perpetrated by gun wielders. Eighty-four people are shot dead daily in this country. Think of that. Think of your children and family and friends and workmates all dying violently in one day… It amazes me that there are no permanent demonstrations against gun violence, and that we have accepted such damning statistics as a suitable cost of living in the USA.

Infrastructure: Over the coming decade, deteriorating infrastructure will pick $7000 from the pockets of each and every American household.  That, of course, is an abstract and symbolic number representing costs of lost wages because of time spent in congestion or in poor transit systems, and the wear-and-tear on cars by rough roads. In reality, this number from a recently released report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, attempts to illustrate a micro level. Thinking macro, we get 870,000 jobs or “a $3.1 trillion suppression of the GDP” before the decade is out.

A few simple examples:

  • There are almost 600,000 bridges in the US. More than 150,000 of these are deficient. 
  • We are spending $42 billion each year on highway maintenance.  We should be spending $146 to $310 billions annually over the next decade.
  • Four-thousand-four-hundred of our 84,000 dams are deficient.
  • Only 11 cities in the US have subway systems, some dating from the 1900s. All of them are in dire need of repairs.
  • The 94,000 public schools in the country account for some $20 billion in annual spending. To work efficiently they need $254 billion.
  • The 360 seaports in the US get $850 million annually but more than twice that is required for routine maintenance. 
  • The pipes that deliver drinking water are mostly underground and falling apart. It will cost $335 billion to updates all the systems. Currently, less than a tenth of that sum is budgeted.
  • A massive blackout could cripple the nation and its economy.  The country’s 157,000 miles of power line comprising the electrical grid need an infusion of $338 billion to pay for modernization and stave off almost certain failure.
More to come… 

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