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A Lesson in Potholes

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Standing at a crosswalk waxing philosophical while waiting for the light to change, my attention was drawn to a truck driving by through a patch of broken pavement, sending powerful reverberations outward that we could readily feel. The episode recalled to my mind a study I had seen more than forty years ago in which a government agency back East determined that the amount of wear and tear attributable to chuckholes that formed in the spring thaw was seven times the cost of fixing them. The potholes get fixed eventually, of course, so we are obviously paying dearly for the delay while not really gaining anything by it.

But this is not all. The agency looked only at wear and tear, not at the energy cost of the potholes. Looking at the individual event of a car dropping a wheel into a chuckhole, the wear and tear is a bigger deal than the energy cost. But the cumulative cost of cars driving over broken pavement is not a negligible thing at all. The unproductive vertical motion of the suspension costs energy that is ultimately sourced by our gasoline. Eventually, of course, the road is repaved. Nothing will have been saved ultimately by the delay. On the contrary, road repair delayed becomes much more expensive. But the ongoing energy costs will have accumulated all the while.

This can be seen as a paradigm for what is going on in our society now. What is true for the potholes and broken pavement in our roads is much more true for our societal neglect at the human level: the neglect in the foster care system; the neglect in our juvenile justice system; the neglect in mental health care; the neglect in our educational system; the neglect of health care in general in a substantial fraction of our population; the devastating social costs of poverty. On another level we have the neglect of global warming, of the loss of biological diversity, and of the transition to renewable energy.

In nearly all of these areas, government needs to be the prime mover or nothing happens. In California, infrastructure expenditures have declined from six percent of the State budget to some two percent over the past several decades. This is clearly unsustainable, and we are bearing increasing incremental costs for this neglect. The same holds true nationally. We all remember the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, which gave rise to a brief flurry of concern about the dire state of many bridges across the nation. But then the concern died down again, and things went back to business as usual.

Here we have the answer to our languishing economy. The alternative to returning to an unsustainable consumption-driven economy lies in turning our attention to our needs rather than our wants. We really have no choice. Already our trade deficit is galloping off into the ozone again, even though our economy is still experiencing slow growth. We cannot go down that route all over again. Unfortunately, our public rhetoric has not yet caught up with this reality.

Officially we are still waiting for the consumer to open his wallet, and we are waiting for the investor to invest. Relying on the private sector is a false hope. Quite frankly, the best investment opportunities do lie abroad rather than at home, and that has been true for a couple of decades now. Robust growth rates are to be found all over the globe. Just not at home. In response, we have to simply decide to take care of our own needs as a first priority, and that involves public business and governmental initiative.

In this enterprise we are not going to get the help of business or the help of the media. Wall Street has become largely divorced from the fate of the American citizen. It is of little concern to Wall Street whether the American worker is healthy, educated, and employable. Even if that were not the case, however, it remains true that for the majority of our key concerns, it is government that has to act as the prime mover.

It is for this reason that we should favor the ending of all of George Bush's tax cuts, even including those for the middle class. They should never have been installed in the first place, but by now their impact is clear. The tax cuts were always a reckless thing to do. Now that we know that, it would be even more reckless to continue them. The worry is that this will further slow the economy, but when it comes to our consumption-based economy, that is not at all a bad thing. It is at this moment far better for our government to have the wherewithal to do what needs to be done. And that means more taxation.

This also fits the Zeitgeist. We cannot expect to go on with equanimity with a Federal government that runs at 24% of the total economy while its income runs at 16%. Letting the tax cuts continue only sets us up for continued malaise for many years. It is notable that even Alan Greenspan agrees that the tax cuts should go.

 

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Siegfried Othmer is a physicist who over the last 28 years has been engaged with neurofeedback as a technique for the rehabilitation and enhancement of brain function. He is Chief Scientist at the EEG Institute in Los Angeles.

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To help in the project of shifting attention to th... by Siegfried Othmer on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 4:06:10 PM