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Archive for October, 2010

Yesterday, we got an indication of what a la carte government could look like when we learned of the fire department that sat and watched a family’s home burn to the ground because they hadn’t paid their annual fee for fire services.  The actions of that fire department touched a chord with many people.  It just seemed so very wrong that fire fighters would do such a thing — as wrong as if a hospital turned a seriously ill or injured patient away if they lacked health insurance.  Last night the same Tennessee county voted to expand subscription-only fire service, thus putting increasing numbers of families at risk of delay at best and refusal to provide service at worst.

The local mayor compared fire-service to auto insurance, a comparison that may sound correct at first glance.  However, closer consideration demonstrates just how crazy that analogy is.  Does anyone really think that first responders are like insurance?  Yes, we’re required to have insurance on our vehicles — at least liability insurance — should we be involved in a wreck.  And if we have a mortgage on our home, we’re required by the lender to have insurance so that the lender is compensated should the property be destroyed.  And even if we stay in that home long enough to pay off the mortgage, no sane, rational person would do without fire insurance.  Our hospitals are prohibited from turning emergency patients away based on whether they have health insurance.

The irony of the situation in Obion County, Tennessee, is that the county did a study a couple years ago that addressed the best way to provide fire service to all its residents.  Section 4 of the report details possible funding options and concludes that the simplest way would have been to raise property taxes by a mere thirteen cents.  That solution was deemed the most inflation proof, because as costs and values rose, the revenue would rise accordingly.  The subscription-only option was estimated to cost $113 per home, excluding commercial properties.  Landlords would have passed the cost onto renters, as with any tax.  But the county fathers, largely conservatives who despise taxes, opted for the subscription approach.

Turns out that at least three homes and a barn had previously been allowed to burn, killing household pets, plus a number of horses in the barn fire.  And in the most recent incident, the fire actually started as a trash fire in a corn field, a fire that spread to the house.  Would the fire department also stand by if people were trapped in a fire at an address that “wasn’t on the list” of people who’d paid their subscription fee?

Have we become so selfish as a society that we are willing to let people’s houses burn to the ground in order to avoid a small tax hike to ensure that everyone has access to basic governmental services?  This is insanity.  We’re seeing libraries close, fire stations shuttered, governmental offices so short-staffed that they epitomize lousy customer service, teachers laid off, school buildings deteriorating, out-of-date textbooks in overcrowded classrooms.  Our roads are crumbling, as are our bridges, water pipes, sewers, and even our electrical grid.  We’re been engaged in a “starve the beast” exercise for several decades with a seemingly endless push to cut taxes.  Is it any surprise that services are suffering?  Except it’s the services that most people depend on that have been starved.  Meanwhile conservatives decry the “nanny state” while offering all sorts of perks, tax breaks and regulations filled with enough loopholes you could drive a truck through them to their cronies.

Simply raising taxes won’t solve our problems.  But our physical and intellectual infrastructure won’t cure itself without attention and investment.  It’s not going to be easy, and it won’t happen over night.  We need to educate ourselves about what government can and should do.  And we need to fund it so that it can do those things  We need to insist that government serve all the people, not just those at the top of the economic ladder.  And we need to demand that those at the top contribute to the common good in proportion to their wealth.

I’d like to see each and every person in this country have to pay something in income taxes, even if it’s only $1.  That gives everyone some skin in the game.

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Several news stories today caught my attention.  The first concerned a house fire in rural Obion County, Tennessee.  Fire services there are “by subscription.”  That means that instead of the fire department funding coming from property taxes, homeowners pay a fee to the local fire department.  A house caught fire.  The owner hadn’t paid the annual subscription fee.  So, the fire department arrived but watched the house burn to the ground and only responded when the flames ignited the neighboring house, whose owner had paid the fee.  When questioned, the local officials were unsympathetic.  One can only imagine the consequences had someone been trapped inside the burning building.  The unfortunate thing is that this is the future if we are so opposed to taxes of any sort.  Those who can afford the services that are part of the common good will receive them.  The rest will have to fend for themselves.  In this instance, the people living in the burning home struggled to put the fire out with a garden hose, only to have it burn to the ground, along with all of their possessions.  Ah, you say, the owners should have paid the fee.  But, what about renters?  If you rent your home and the landlord doesn’t pay the fee and doesn’t bother to tell you, or if the system required the owner alone to pay, and the house catches fire, what happens then?  Now, raise that situation to an apartment house.  One unit catches fire, and the entire building burns to the ground.   Certainly there is moral responsibility to the renters, but is there legal liability?

The second story concerned the “near record” profits of US corporations this past quarter.  That might explain why the stock market has rebounded, but given that the profits came at the expense of jobs, it also explains why most Americans are skeptical that the recession has actually ended.   A related story appeared in the L.A. Times today, relating how California almond growers are increasingly turning to mechanical picking.  Increased automation can add greatly to productivity in many businesses.  But there is a point beyond which it is counter productive.  Consumers cannot consume if they don’t have jobs.  And consumer spending is the life blood of the US economy.  If you follow the concept of increasing automation to its logical conclusion, you have a world where there are corporate executives, along with a few relatively low-wage individuals to serve as “administrative assistants” to make travel reservations, make coffee and clean the executive suites, plus a few technicians to maintain the automation equipment.  The actual manufacturing is all done robotically.  And robots don’t demand higher wages or benefits or workplace safety.  It’s an executive’s dream. But robots don’t make many purchases.  I recently saw a video clip of an amazing piece of machinery that is being used to replace worn railroad ties.  Instead of an entire crew of workers wielding shovels, picks and sledge hammers, this machine gets by with one person to “drive” the machine down the track and two additional people on each side, reattaching the rail to the new ties.  Yes, of course, manufacturing the piece of machinery took engineers to design it, and a factory in which to build it.  But where is that factory?  And is it automated so that robots do most of the manufacturing?

And the third story is actually a recurring one.  Despite all of the air time, newsprint, and bandwidth devoted to conservatives talking about the need to cut government spending, when pressed, few can name significant programs they’d cut.  Sure, there’s the talk about eliminating the Department of Education — but we also want good schools and most of us understand that there is a direct connection between education and employability in most areas of the economy.  Low wage workers have been hit the hardest in this recession, and the jobs that have been lost to automation represent permanent job losses.  Those workers will need to be retrained for new jobs.  But while millions remain unemployed, who will provide the funding to retrain those whose jobs have disappeared permanently?  Especially if tax increases are off the table politically?

The future does indeed look grim if the no-tax, no spending folks take over.  If you thought the country suffered under the trickle down policies of the Reagan-Bush-Bush years, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!  During economic hard times, the government has been the employer of last resort.  During the Depression of the 1930s, FDR’s New Deal policies included things like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps that provided jobs and the accompanying restoration of dignity while constructing infrastructure projects like the Hoover Dam, electricity to Appalachia, and the construction of facilities at our national parks so the wonders of this country’s beauty could be enjoyed by us all.

What’s missing today?  It seems that the biggest lack is the recognition that there is a common good.  Despite what conservatives and libertarians would have us believe, history shows us that when the middle class does well, when overall poverty rates are reduced, everyone benefits — even those at the top.  And surprisingly, the top benefits even more than when the goodies accrue largely to the top 2%.  Something to think about.

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