Posts Tagged federal government

A victory for government, and adulthood

US CapitolNormally, I use this space to rant about things that are wrong with the world; I don’t always follow up when things go right.

I am immensely relieved that the government shutdown is over, and that Democrats were able end it without defacing the Affordable Care Act.

I tend to give less emphasis to these types of events because, right or wrong, I feel like this is simply how things should work.

The Republican healthcare-for-hostages scheme was completely unreasonable; the GOP was trying to block a law that had already been approved by Congress, and vetted by the Supreme Court and the people’s votes for President Obama in last year’s election.

Republicans may not like the law, but that’s not a reason for shutting down the government. Wednesday’s solution was the only logical way for this to end.

I say that not as a supporter of Obamacare gloating over a hard-won victory, but as someone who has faith in the mechanisms of the Federal government.

In a democracy, not everyone will agree 100 percent of the time, but our system of government has always been able to contain those disagreements (with the exception of the Civil War). Over the past couple of weeks, that system was tested by a group that simply wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, and it passed.

The American people passed the test too.

We stood up for that system of government, not letting concepts of “fairness” or “compromise” become transmuted into a tyranny of the minority, realizing that adults need to be able to handle not getting their way.

Many people assume that constant fighting is an inherent part of how Washington works, but the government shutdown has shown that obstruction by a few shouldn’t be misconstrued with overall incompetence.

Now that we’ve gotten a taste of how government is supposed to work, maybe we’ll be less lenient the next time Republicans conjure up a crisis to advance their agenda.

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The will of one

Clouded Captiol [Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP]

Clouded Captiol [Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP]

Five years ago, a Jewish businessman in Dothan, Alabama saw that his synagogue was running out of congregants.

So he put up $1 million to recruit Jews, offering a financial incentive for them to move to Alabama and join the congregation.

Money can accomplish seemingly-impossible things, like getting Jews to move to the Deep South. However, that becomes a problem when there is no other power to balance the influence of cash and an individual willing to use it to exert his or her will.

An individual like John Ramsey. A 21-year-old Ron Paul fan, he used money inherited from his grandparents to start the Liberty for All Super PAC.

According to Rolling Stone, the PAC funded the winning campaign of  Kentucky Congressman Thomas Massie, one of the hardline proponents of the government shutdown.

People have a right to contribute resources to causes they believe in, but without forces to balance them–like a string government or informed populace–what we get is essentially feudalism: the people with the money decide what happens.

Liberals have (rightfully) criticized corporations of exerting this kind of undue influence through lobbying and job-baiting, but things will get much weirder if that guy who just won the lottery becomes a political influencer.

The government shutdown is an example of tyranny of the minority: a group that’s been outvoted is holding everyone else hostage because they can’t deal with losing.

If Super PACs and their untraceable campaign funding are allowed to continue corrupting the electoral process, we’ll just get more of that.

In a democracy, not every person can have his or her way 100 percent of the time. Let’s make sure that having money to spend on a political campaign doesn’t change that.

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Mass transit: Profits and public good

CDOT MUAmerica’s interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and its dependence on foreign oil, is so apparent that it requires no witty opening sentence. Most attention is concentrated on transportation; a mixture of hybrid and fully-electric vehicles are supposed to solve the problem eventually. Developing new technologies is a good idea, but I am also an advocate of expanding mass transit. The only problem is money.

Everything costs something, but people need to get over that. Restoring an old railroad right of way for commuter service, or building a new light rail system in an urban center costs millions of dollars per project, plus millions more in yearly operating costs. Naysayers like to point out that affordable mass transit will have a hard time recouping these costs, which makes it economically dubious.

The idea that a transportation system should pay for all of its infrastructure, and be financially lucrative, to be successful seems peculiar to rails. Bus companies do not own the highways their vehicles travel on, and do not pay for their maintenance. The same is true of airlines and their massive, publicly-funded airports.

Historically, anything involving rails has been the exception to this rule. First, private railroad companies built tracks and ran passenger trains, with only fares as compensation. When the private companies had had enough of losing money, they turned their passenger operations over to Amtrak and various regional commuter agencies, like New York’s MTA and Boston’s MBTA. From then on, the government footed the bill.

The same is true of urban transportation systems, like streetcars and subways. New York’s subway system was built by three private companies, who ran the trains and maintained the tracks. When these companies went bust, the MTA took over operations.

Government agencies have been able to maintain acceptable levels of service, but expansion has been an uphill battle because of the money issue. It’s not just a lack of funds, it is an irrational unwillingness to support mass transit just because individual services cannot break even. Here’s an example: during the Bush Administration, the Republican-controlled Congress refused to approve Amtrak’s budget because the government-owned passenger train operator was not turning a profit.

The frank truth is that mass transit is not a money-making proposition. That’s why private companies abandoned their passenger-carrying operations decades ago, and why we don’t have a national airline or bus operator. It is important to remember that the government does not exist to make profits, it exists to serve the people. Yes, investing in mass transit will probably result in a loss, but there are other things to gain besides money.

Losing money sucks, but sometimes the public good is more important. Expanded rail services could reduce emissions and oil consumption by getting people out of their cars, not to mention alleviating traffic. Even if ticket sales don’t cover the costs of a given service, that seems like a worthwhile benefit.

Some people understand that. In Michigan and Illinois, upgrades to existing rail lines will increase intercity trains speeds and reduce travel times. In Wisconsin, the state is testing high speed Talgo trains for a new service linking major cities. It’s time for the rest of the country to get on board (no pun intended).

Mass transit services should try to recoup as much of the public’s investment as possible, but they should not be abandoned if they lose money. Commuter trains and light rail will probably never be profitable, but they will always be a benefit to the public. We may live in a capitalist society, but money is not the only thing that matters.

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