Saturday, September 03, 2005

TANSTAAFL

“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” – Robert A. Heinlein

The concepts of investment, delayed gratification (no, not that kind of gratification, you perv), and building for the future seem to have gone by the wayside in recent years.

“Tax cuts” have been the mantra for some time in a growing portion of the U.S. population. The theory behind this philosophy (assuming those that take this view actually attempt rational justification for this belief in any sort of intelligent way) is that any money provided “the guv’mint” is money down the tubes. Since government bureaucracies cannot manage the efficient use of money as well as the “invisible hand” of the market, it should not be given the opportunity of money to waste. Indeed, it would be a crime for the government to levy said money when it could be so much better leveraged by private industry.

Unfortunately, there is a rather large, gaping hole in the levy – one that directly leads to gaping holes in the levees that we see today in New Orleans. That hole is the failure to recognize that government doesn’t just “happen” – it is formed for a reason by its citizens. And that reason is to provide for the common good of it’s people.

The debate waxes and wanes regarding the size of the sphere of this 'common good'. At a minimum, most accept that government must protect and defend its citizens against threats, foreign and domestic. Both parties practically trip over each other to demonstrate who is more supportive of defense these days, given the clear and present danger of fundamentalist extremists practicing terrorism.

But what about protection and defense against economic harm? Investment in transportation, risk minimization, and maintenance of existing investments all play a key role in ensuring a strong economic system. While it may be private enterprise that executes the development, it can only be a collective entity representing the population – government – that can take the initiative to identify and invest in these enterprises. From the hard - roads, airports, electricity, sewers – to the soft - the rule of law, currency, disaster prevention relief and prevention – all are necessarily the purview of government, for it was for these very services that governments were formed.

One would think that all could agree that the provision of infrastructure that allows the vital fluid of commerce to flow freely and securely in turn benefits all who participate. In fact, one would think that even those who believe that economic good does not flow evenly and is instead concentrated in an inverse power curve, with a few having the most, that it would be these few, who would be the strongest supporters of infrastructure investment.

The perversity is that it is many of these very same oligarch’s who most benefit from a well greased economic engine that fund the campaigns against government spending on said infrastructure.

Could it have been forseen that someday a city built largely under the local water level would be at high risk of a disaster? A city who is at the center of commerce in so many ways, from shipping, to oil, to the fact that it is a major population. Could a tradeoff of the investment to minimize and mitigate this risk against the economic impact of a disaster been made?

Yes, of course it could, and was.
Ron Fournier of The Associated Press reported that the Army Corps of Engineers asked for $105 million for hurricane and flood programs in New Orleans last year. The White House carved it to about $40 million. - Maureen Dowd, NY Times
But why pay for today what you may never get the benefit of? Why build complex water control structures like the Netherlands? Why invest in schools, or upgrade sewer and road infrastructure, or disease management and preventive medicine? Why do any of these things that may not pay off for years (and particularly if any ill effects from a lack of investment also wouldn’t be felt for years)?

Ask the half million people with no home, no job, who are living worse than Palestinian refugees. Ask the other couple hundred million who will be feeling the effect of the Katrina disaster in their gas, insurance, retail goods, and government debt for years to come.

Ask yourself.

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