Post-apocalyptic politics can’t fix our roads, bridges
I’ve always liked post-apocalyptic science fiction movies. You know, movies like “Planet of the Apes,” “The Time Machine,” “Mad Max,” “On the Beach,” “The Book of Eli.” Mankind has blown it up and all is a wasteland. The characters struggle to survive. They scavenge the crumbling remains of the civilization their ancestors once built.
The good science fiction message, of course, was about the folly of war and mankind forgetting what is important and letting things slip away.
We haven’t blown everything up, but perhaps we are letting things slip away. Our post-apocalyptic scenario has to do with lost political institutional knowledge and public wherewithal to provide for basic needs of our state. It appears that our government is incapable of building and maintaining an adequate, safe system of roads and bridges needed for transportation and our economy. Oh, we know how to build roads and bridges, but we have forgotten what it takes politically and governmentally to act to build and maintain our roads and bridges.
Building roads and bridges ought to be simple, right? Either do it or don’t; reap benefits or suffer consequences. There is no vexing, complicated public policy question here. But the members of the Legislature and its leadership, selected by we the people, cannot agree on a plan, any plan, to fix the highways and maintain bridges. Now, they will make all kinds of excuses and rationalizations, but the reality is that to build highways and bridges, government has to pay for highways and bridges. And that requires revenue from taxes. We either raise money to pay for roads and bridges, or we don’t. It’s yes or no, build or don’t build, and, so far, the answer is “no.”
Now there once was a time when men and women of good will came together to form governments to accomplish societal tasks that private entities or individuals could not. That took compromise, common sense and some effort. And, yes, it took sacrifice of we the people. We have to vote, get involved and pay taxes.
In this post-political apocalyptic Mississippi, we have forgotten that. We are basically leaderless. Like the movies, we have a few warlords over their fiefdoms, but no real overarching, common-goal, vision-driven leadership that looks at a problem and comes up with a solution. Our elected officials argue and posture. They even whine and say there is “no political will.” But, instead of trying to create “political will,” they just shrug their shoulders.
It’s not fair to blame it all on elected officials. We can look in the mirror here. Our body politic is such that any proposal — any, all, no exceptions — to raise taxes is politically toxic. Elected officials believe, and with good basis, that they will suffer dire political consequences if they support a basic fuel tax increase to fix roads and bridges.
So instead, we get smoke-and-mirror, duct-tape-and-bailing-wire schemes (lotteries, tax swaps, sports gambling) to try to repair some roads and fix a few bridges in a way that elected officials can say they did something without raising taxes. The problem is those schemes don’t add up to enough to do the job, and they can’t agree on one anyway.
Next will come the age-old political strategy of delaying so long as to create the crisis in hopes of forcing action. The problem is, with roads and bridges, not acting makes the long-term costs higher and could hurt people. You don’t play politics with infrastructure safety.
So, let’s look back to what our ancestors did before the big anti-tax bomb dropped. They funded roads with fuel taxes, which is the most effective way to pay for roads and bridges. It is fair. It is a use tax. People who use the roads pay for the roads. Most other states have figured that out and raised their fuel taxes. We need to raise our fuel tax, allow it to adjust for inflation and include electric vehicles in the tax mix.
There was a time when our elected officials knew how to do these things. There was a time when voters understood that everybody has to chip in to pay for society’s infrastructure. There was even a time when elected officials were willing to make difficult decisions to do what was needed, even if it meant they might not be so popular. Roads should be easy. What about the real difficult issues that also need investment and commitment? Education? Economic development? Health care?
But all of that political ability and social responsibility is lost, forgotten somewhere in our past. Lost knowledge, lost wisdom, lost technology. Like Charlton Heston looking at the ruins of the broken Statue of Liberty in “Planet of the Apes,” we are staring at the crumbling remains of the roads and bridges built by past generations, wondering why were we so foolish to let it all slip away?
Dang it, even Mel Gibson in “Mad Max” chased the bad guys through the wasteland on smooth highways.
David Hampton is a Mississippi journalist. He retired as editorial director of the Clarion Ledger in 2012 and now teaches journalism. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.