Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The sky is falling

Get used to it. Maybe get an umbrella. A really strong one. Parts of a major expressway in downtown Toronto started falling on the street below this week. Initial reactions by officials were that everything is fine. Which, of course, it is not. It may not be a big structural issue for the Gardiner to have its superficial outer layer flaking off, but it sure is a big health issue for anyone walking or driving on the Lakeshore underneath it.

This is just another piece of crumbling infrastructure which we can't pay to keep up. Which, it turns out, is built into the North American way of life. Someone pointed me at this series of articles this week. They are very well reasoned and full of evidence in the form of case studies. I strongly recommend you take the time to read them all, but if you are really pressed, I'd say read #2 and #5.

And then, remember this: whatever you're paying – in taxes, for goods, for services – it's not enough. And if you don't pony up, eventually the sky will fall on your head.


MZ said...

The thing is, there's an obvious solution.
We're still in a recession, and unemployment is too high. Meanwhile, our infrastructure is crumbling and we need new sources of energy.
Put another way: There are people who need work to do, and there is work that needs doing.

If the government - at the appopriate level, I don't know offhand whether highway maintenance or sewers or wind farming is under the authority of municipal or provincial governments, or even federal - put out tenders right now for someone to fix the bridges, dig new sewers, bury power lines, replace train tracks, build new parks, refurbish government buildings and hospitals, and all sorts of jobs that need a handful of engineers to design and a whole bunch of people who don't need much special qualification beyond a need to work, how long do you think it would take to fill those jobs? Days? Hours? And I don't (and never will) know the tax laws well enough to draw the curves, but there's surely a crossover point (or at least a close approach) between money spent on these projects and money gained through (income tax + money not spent on EI + sales tax on things that the workers can now buy that they couldn't before + money saved by not relying on stopgap repairs for infrastructure when it fails catastrophically). Right?

As for the whole "Ponzi" thing, I get it, but it's like with almost anything else. You're dumb if you think that a new car or stereo or computer is an investment. They will only depreciate in value, and you'll only spend more money on them over time. But if you want something to make your life easier/better, even if it's just satisfying a want, then you buy it, right? To continue the analogy, you're SUPER-dumb if you buy a car and can't afford to change the oil. But in the case of urban/suburban growth, it CAN be a good thing to grow, and it CAN be maintained. But that requires long-term thinking, and when was the last time you heard a politician display any of that?

terriblenews said...

I don't think that the argument being made is that growth is bad. Rather, that we, as an entire continent, got suckered into a growth Ponzi scheme. Just like (arguably) there are good investment funds, but Bernie Madoff's clients got suckered into an investment Ponzi scheme. And buying the car without being able to pay to change the oil is exactly what we've done. Not only that, we went into hock to buy a car to drive to work except that the grand total we will have earned by the time the car dies will be less than the cost of the car loan.

As for your obvious solution, the question isn't how quickly can you fill those jobs but rather who is going to pay them? And of course almost everyone is quick to jump up and shout "not me"! I don't know where you live, MZ, but around these parts the political catchphrase is about "respect for taxpayers" which means "I promise you something for nothing".

And that is a problem not so much with the politicians, but with the electorate. Which is why I write these things – in hopes of getting people to consider things from a different angle than they might otherwise get from traditional media and coworkers and suchlike. When was the last time someone told you to pay more taxes? I hope it gets through to at least a few people.

MZ said...

Both those points are well-taken.
I'm convinced that hiring the Infrastructure Squad would pay for itself, or at least come close to it, for the reasons I mentioned above, so more taxes aren't necessarily the result nor the solution. And you're right that the whole "respect for taxpayers" jibber-jabber doesn't help, because that's just an excuse to avoid making potentially-unpopular-in-the-short-term spending decisions.

I'm not sure it's the electorate to blame, though. It's hard to blame most people, who are unwilling/unable to follow any sort of politics (let alone municipal) particularly deeply, for accepting the rhetoric of politicians. If you, as a politician, hammer home the talking points effectively, you can get a majority of citizens to believe them, or at least accept them, and that's not really the citizens' fault. So as long as the "taxes are inherently bad" mantra is repeated (a close, nastier relative is "private sector always does it better than the government"), then we'll be trapped in the cycle of politicians saying taxes are bad -> getting votes -> being convinced that lowering taxes gets votes -> voicing belief that taxes are bad, leading to a race of who can cut taxes the most, because taxes are bad. And anyone who proposes raising taxes so we can, y'know, buy stuff we like, gets hammered.

Lost story short, you're right.

MZ said...

LONG story short. Long.

Justin said...

Stupid thing didn't post the first time }: (

I like that his postcard is from 1894. I had a discussion like this with my Aunt a couple weeks ago and I see myself left with one question, do I think my new lifestyle will look more like 1932 or 1875? Either way I'm planning on being very downwardly mobile in the future.

Also, I've even found myself contemplating my newly resumed profession. It's better than an oil refinery but if it was going to really be sustainable we'd be building out of wood. One, because then the materials would be renewable, but also because the existence of old, indefinitely lasting, plastic boats means people can buy old ones instead of new ones. At least wood eventually rots : >

Also, good article.

terriblenews said...

MZ, it's not really about being right (although I *do* like being right ;*) ) but about trying to get the evidence out there. I think the logic of the Ponzi scheme articles is fairly easy to follow and I think the crumbling expressway in Toronto while the mayor cries "cut cut cut" are good, close-to-home examples of why taxes are important.

Justin, I like your 1894 eyebrows on your frowny face. As for what your future will look like, I expect it will look at lot like 2012. Downwardly mobile is right. That's something that wasn't really addressed in these articles, but I think the rational responses and irrational responses take applies equally well to the likely upcoming de-energizing of society. Sadly, we appear to be mostly choosing irrational responses to that, as well.