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Pothole Economics

It is false economy to try to save government dollars by postponing road repair. Bad roads are expensive.


It is false economy to try to save government dollars by postponing road repair. Bad roads are expensive. We pay with more frequent visits to tire shops and auto mechanics. We pay with increased accidents and higher insurance premiums. We pay with inefficiency that adds extra minutes to each trip and extra pennies to the cost of every product that travels over the road.

This state of disrepair is the immediate result of state, local and federal reductions in spending on road maintenance. But tight budgets are themselves a symptom, rather than the ultimate cause, of the problem. Our state and nation are facing a much broader problem than potholes.

First of all, let's recognize that the challenge of maintaining our own infrastructure is greatly magnified by the current U.S. military adventure in Iraq. We're shipping crate-load after crate-load of tax dollars to the deserts of the Middle East — dollars that might otherwise go to providing services we need here at home. Remember that when the Bush administration insists on more budget cuts for already weakened domestic programs.

Nevertheless, if we want our roads fixed, we'll have to pay. Pitted, crumbling roadways are just one of the more obvious and irritating symptoms of a misguided public attitude toward government and its functions.

Confronted with a crumbling infrastructure, we have three choices. One option is to learn to live with it. It can be done. People in the Soviet Union spent years surviving poor, crowded housing, chronic shortages of consumer goods, maddeningly slow and inefficient government bureaucracy and endless lines. We can adapt ourselves to similar decrepitude.

A second choice is to fix the problem ourselves, individually. I could heat up a pot of asphalt on my stove, stir in some gravel and fill the holes in the street outside my house. If each of us were to pitch in, taking responsibility for one little stretch of road, we'd all soon be rolling along smoothly again.

Such a solution is bound to fail, of course. I don't have the necessary equipment and materials, and I'd rather not stand in the middle of Midlothian Turnpike tamping down macadam while traffic buzzes past me in both directions. Besides, even if I did my part, I doubt everyone else in the neighborhood would do his or her fair share.

So what does that leave us? Well, government of course. Fixing potholes is what we have governments for. That, and lots of other things, like putting out fires, catching criminals, installing streetlights, educating children, making sure our food and medicines are safe, judging our disputes, and a thousand other essential tasks we rely on but can't do ourselves.

Tax cuts have become the perennial mantra of many local, state and national politicians. They've managed to convince too many of us that taxes — and "big government" — are bad, and tax cuts inherently good. This chant has gotten them elected and kept them in office.

We've forgotten what our civics teacher explained to us in high school — the reasons why we pay taxes in the first place. Taxes allow us to do things collectively that none of us are able to accomplish individually. Our tax dollars pay to educate all children, whether or not their families can afford a private school. In the long run, educated children build and preserve our society. Taxes pay our judges, police officers and firefighters. And, of course, taxes pay for the materials, equipment and personnel who maintain our highways and city streets. When politicians are unwilling to levy sufficient taxes, those services suffer.

If we were to pay a little more for those government services, would we really get more in return? Tax-cutting politicians claim that increasing taxes simply results in more government waste. They've managed to sell that line to quite a few of us. But a visit to Canada, or any one of a number of European nations, quickly shows this claim is false and deceptive. Yes, the Canadians and Swedes pay more in taxes than we do. But in return they get health services for all, better housing for lower-income citizens, care for the elderly, well-maintained streets and beautiful public spaces for all to enjoy. No doubt some Canadian tax revenue is misspent by bureaucrats. Sweden probably has some "waste, fraud and abuse." But citizens of countries with higher taxes generally get what they pay for. Unfortunately, so do we.

It takes tax dollars to fill in those potholes. So the next time some politician tries to secure your vote by promising to "hold the line" on taxes, or offers you yet another tax cut, keep your eyes on the road. If we want a smoothly functioning society, we have to be willing to pay for it. S

Paul Fleisher is a veteran Richmond teacher and author of a number of books for children and educators.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

Letters to the editor may be sent to: letters@styleweekly.com


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