Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Consider community

As I post the following commentary from Nicholas Kristof, I catch myself bracing for the reaction from some of my regulars here!  I think some of you follow me to refill your frustration tank!  But what Kristof writes raises tough and important issues that as a society we must address.  Hopefully, we can find a way to do so with respect, substance and integrity.  The debates over the role of public institutions in addressing real-life, contemporary issues affecting communities, neighborhoods, corporations and individuals must be taken seriously. 

This is certainly, possibly doubly, true in the neighbors where we live and work.  From education to health care, from infrastructure to public safety, from housing to living wage employment we face big issues that call for new, bold and comprehensive solutions and responses. 

At the end of the day we just need to face the fact that "standby generators" just won't get us what we all need. 

Read Kristof's essay.  Tell me what you think.


A Failed Experiment

In upper-middle-class suburbs on the East Coast, the newest must-have isn’t a $7,500 Sub-Zero refrigerator. It’s a standby generator that automatically flips on backup power to an entire house when the electrical grid goes out.
In part, that’s a legacy of Hurricane Sandy. Such a system can cost well over $10,000, but many families are fed up with losing power again and again.
(A month ago, I would have written more snarkily about residential generators. But then we lost power for 12 days after Sandy — and that was our third extended power outage in four years. Now I’m feeling less snarky than jealous!)
More broadly, the lust for generators is a reflection of our antiquated electrical grid and failure to address climate change. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave our grid, prone to bottlenecks and blackouts, a grade of D+ in 2009.
So Generac, a Wisconsin company that dominates the generator market, says it is running three shifts to meet surging demand. About 3 percent of stand-alone homes worth more than $100,000 in the country now have standby generators installed.
“Demand for generators has been overwhelming, and we are increasing our production levels,” Art Aiello, a spokesman for Generac, told me.
That’s how things often work in America. Half-a-century of tax cuts focused on the wealthiest Americans leave us with third-rate public services, leading the wealthy to develop inefficient private workarounds.
It’s manifestly silly (and highly polluting) for every fine home to have a generator. It would make more sense to invest those resources in the electrical grid so that it wouldn’t fail in the first place.
But our political system is dysfunctional: in addressing income inequality, in confronting climate change and in maintaining national infrastructure.
The National Climatic Data Center has just reported that October was the 332nd month in a row of above-average global temperatures. As the environmental Web siteGrist reported, that means that nobody younger than 27 has lived for a single month with colder-than-average global temperatures, yet climate change wasn’t even much of an issue in the 2012 campaign. Likewise, the World Economic Forum ranks American infrastructure 25th in the world, down from 8th in 2003-4, yet infrastructure is barely mentioned by politicians.
So time and again, we see the decline of public services accompanied by the rise of private workarounds for the wealthy.
Is crime a problem? Well, rather than pay for better policing, move to a gated community with private security guards!
Are public schools failing? Well, superb private schools have spaces for a mere $40,000 per child per year.
Public libraries closing branches and cutting hours? Well, buy your own books and magazines!
Are public parks — even our awesome national parks, dubbed “America’s best idea” and the quintessential “public good” — suffering from budget cuts? Don’t whine. Just buy a weekend home in the country!
Public playgrounds and tennis courts decrepit? Never mind — just join a private tennis club!
I’m used to seeing this mind-set in developing countries like Chad or Pakistan, where the feudal rich make do behind high walls topped with shards of glass; increasingly, I see it in our country. The disregard for public goods was epitomized by Mitt Romney’s call to end financing of public broadcasting.
A wealthy friend of mine notes that we all pay for poverty in the end. The upfront way is to finance early childhood education for at-risk kids. The back-end way is to pay for prisons and private security guards. In cities with high economic inequality, such as New York and Los Angeles, more than 1 percent of all employees work as private security guards, according to census data.
This question of public goods hovers in the backdrop as we confront the “fiscal cliff” and seek to reach a deal based on a mix of higher revenues and reduced benefits. It’s true that we have a problem with rising entitlement spending, especially in health care. But I also wonder if we’ve reached the end of a failed half-century experiment in ever-lower tax rates for the wealthy.
Since the 1950s, the top federal income tax rate has fallen from 90 percent or more to 35 percent. Capital gains tax rates have been cut by more than half since the late 1970s. Financial tycoons now often pay a lower tax rate than their secretaries.
All this has coincided with the decline of some public services and the emergence of staggering levels of inequality (granted, other factors are also at work) such that the top 1 percent of Americans now have greater collective net worth than the entire bottom 90 percent.
Not even the hum of the most powerful private generator can disguise the failure of that long experiment.


Anonymous said...

Obama just wants to advance his agenda, none of the talk of taxes are designed to reduce the deficit. Obama just wants to increase taxes on the successful because he doesn't believe in the capitalistic system and he thinks it's payback time.

The false assumption that the rich pay less than their secretaries is a bunch of BS.

There is not one person in Washington or anywhere else that believes that raising taxes on the successful will do ANYTHING to get us out of this mess. The only thing that will get us out is to stop spending.

Anonymous said...

One doesn't hear much about the balanced approach,that is stop spending to offset higher taxes on the more successful.

Anonymous said...

I have a problem with 47% of the people who don't pay any income tax and yet get benefit after benefit.

Obama's tax plan is a joke.

Anonymous said...

The idea has been mentioned that if we go back to the Clinton era tax plan then we should go back to his spending plan. Seems fair to me.

Anonymous said...

Obama will inherited a bigger mess next year than he inherited in 2008. Wonder who he will blame that on?

Anonymous said...

New York and California have the the highest income inequality and yet they have the highest tax on the "rich."
What does that tell you? They are also not right to work states. Maybe you have it backwards

Terry Cagle said...

Good article. Good points. Good grief, anonymous.

Anonymous said...

There is simply no question about much of what Kristoff says. Almost everyone who examines the issue agrees America's infrastructure is aged and not up to speed anymore. We are falling behind Europe and Japan, and even parts of China. I understand the arguments about spending. But I do not understand why we cannot agree to spend on infrastructure. It's absolutely necessary for our future well being and is something even most conservatives and libertarians agree is a valid government function. And it creates jobs.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't that what the stimulus plan was all about? Too bad all those billions went to unions and not to build infrastructure and create jobs. Why should we trust Obama again?