Monday, August 06, 2007

today : falling in the river

Bridges collapsing, tunnels falling down, steam pipes exploding, levees breaking the roof of the big dig falling down on someone's head. You would think that the richest country in the world, able to spend 450 billion on a war (whether or not it is justified or not) could make sure that its bridges don't fall down.

It's an obvious point to make, I know. But the fact is that someone should pay for it. And that is where the monetarist argument itself collapses. Everyone wants more more money in their pocket to spend as they wish. Nobody really wants to have to give up their hard earned income to someone else. But neither do people want to spend cash on boring necessities. The problem the monetarist, low tax or no tax theorists have is that part of their theory is wrong. Whilst crowing about people wanting to spend their own money, they assume that people will spend their own money on good stuff, rather than gas guzzlers, cocaine or whatever. I bet many people who used the I-35 bridge would baulk if they had to spend their own cash on making sure the bridge was safe. Because that's someone
else's job. This is not a party thing either. Bush did not cause the Minneapolis bridge collapse. How many Democrats have campaigned on raising taxes to do good stuff recently?

I went to the hospital the other day. I must say that I was well treated and the whole thing was very efficient. Yet the doctors and nurses who were so professional, apologised to me for the infrastructure. It was part of the hospital that had yet to be refurbished and felt a little like a shabby relic of the 1950s. This was the result of 20 years of Tory cuts in public spending. Ten years later Labour has started to pay the doctors pretty well, cut waiting lists so I didn't have to wait more than a couple of weeks and provided stuff like an MRI scanner. Yet the paint is still peeling from many of the walls, because the compound lack of investment over 20 years is stunning.

found much the same in the schools where I worked over the last decade. There was money for books and resources and more money to pay teachers, but the buildings were tatty and inadequate. A programme of building new schools was happening, but you can't replace 20,000 broken down schools in one fell swoop - even if there is money to do it.

And this is what has happened in America. Ideologically this goes back to Reagan, whose slavish following of Milton Friedman
ended up as Reaganomics and eventually Thatcherism. But it goes back much further than that. In fact, the last time the US infrastructure received a major overhaul was when much of it was built during the New Deal era.

The upshot is that there is no money to catch up with the problems of underinvestment. Only when a bridge falls down or an entire city is washed away does anyone endeavour to do anything. Even then, in New Orleans, the amount needed to restore the city is so vast that it will take years - and some parts of town will never be rebuilt.

But convincing people that tax is good and that it is basically paying someone else to do the boring, essential stuff is difficult. Monetarist notions have become the orthodoxy of peoples' beliefs about tax and the role of governments and changing that might simply be a bridge too far.

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