August 19, 2011

America: Land of the cheap, home of the chintzy

I've been having this idea run through the back of my head for some time. It's not just about conservatives who think the private sector can about always do things cheaper than the public sector, or that when government is necessary, it can always be run cheaper than it is now.

I think many liberals may think that America can be run cheaply in some ways, too.

And, beyond political ideologies, I think this idea stretches further, and goes beyond just monetary cheapness. We think, and hope, many things can be done on the temporal cheap. Perhaps, on the hope side, that's because we get worked more at our our jobs, on average, than in any other developed nation in the world, and with less paid vacation time at the same time.

But, let's go back to monetary issues, and a great bipartisan example of this. For years, long before the current recession and talk that Obama should make infrastructure repairs and upgrades part of his stimulus policy more than he did, political pundits, leaders of governments from local through federal level, think tank and policy analysts, and John/Jane Does have all talked about America's infrastructure needs. They often mentioned roads and bridges, but many older cities in the Northeast, especially, can tick off aging water and sewer pipes, mixed storm/sanitary sewer systems and other infrastructure problems that rank up there with decaying bridges. (Update: I didn't specifically list all infrastructure, but natural-gas, oil and gasoline pipelines would also certainly qualify.)

And yet, setting aside Obama's refusal to spend more stimulus money on this, plus his either neglect of the idea, or refusal to implement, direct jobs creation and retraining for this type of work, Americans simply don't want to talk about the costs of what's seriously needed. (Costs that could, nonetheless, easily be financed with defense spending cuts.)

People don't want to talk about the costs of truly getting safer food.

They don't want to talk about the costs of having adequate police numbers to do quality policing without violating both the spirit and the letter of the Fourth Amendment.

They don't want to talk about the costs of the 200- or 210-plus-day school year that we really need to be on a level playing field with those other developed nations. (Note: While the performance problem is the worst at poverty-affected urban schools, even suburban and exurban ones aren't great. And, in comparisons to other "developed" nations, don't forget that suburban Paris has its banlieus, London has its slums, etc., that affect its school ranks. On the longer school year, I have had superintendents of school districts agree with me, too.)

And so on, and so on.

But why?

I think there are multiple main reasons.

One is American exceptionalism. We believe, or many of us do, that we Americans can do on the cheap as well as other nations even when they spend more. Well, from automobiles to many other things, that's just bullshit.

Two is self-delusion. We talk about infrastructure problems, for example, but we don't really think they're THAT bad. We talk about school problems, but think it's just uppity minorities in inner cities, rather than going-through-the-motions people in suburbs or privilege/entitlement mentality persons in the exurbs. (Note: I can't remember the name of the psychological phenomenon, but the issue of most people believing themselves to be more skilled than they actually are certainly, IMO, applies to suburban and exurban schools.)

Three is what I call salvific technologism. Many Americans believe that some new item of good old technology will ride over the hill like the cavalry, delivering us in the end.

Four is a riff on that, combined with religion, and taking from the first point. It's a religious version of American exceptionalism, believing that the Christian God will ride over the Calvary to deliver America, should it just humble itself enough or whatever.

That's just a sampling. But, all of those ideas, to some degree or another, look beyond the need to spend money.

They also look beyond the need to spend on human capital.

Better schools, especially with a longer school year, is going to involve a mix of more teachers and more aides or professional assistants.

Better policing, as I already said, involves more cops. It also involves better-trained cops, not just on police training but civil liberties training.

Better bridges involves not just repairing the decrepit ones, but making more maintenance investments on ones not yet decrepit. That is, more inspectors.

Better food safety and other regulatory service also involves expenditure on the human capital of inspectors, analysts, etc.

To the degree America is exceptional in any way, it is not innate. It is not, certainly, "god-given." Rather, it's the product of that human capital.

Let's not be cheap. Let's not be chintzy.

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