Mon, Sep
21
2009

Handouts to Me is My Right. Handouts to Other People is Wonton Socialism.

Mon, Sep 21, 2009

(Update: Yes, I’ve been told that “wonton” is a typo, but I’m going to leave it. Feel free to speculate what wonton socialism looks like, and how it compares with wanton socialism. Thanks Jennie!)

Earlier this month, a group of 70,000 “teabaggers” marched on Washington protesting… well, just about everything, but specifically socialism. Obama has the temerity to try to offer public healthcare to uninsured Americans? Socialism. Obama tries to address students and tell them to work hard and stay in school? Socialist indoctrination. Government spends money to try and keep people in their homes during the mortgage crisis? Socialism. It’s almost as though ‘socialism’ has become a code-word meaning ‘something I don’t like, which doesn’t benefit me.’

Because, strangely enough, while these 70,000 right-wingers descended on Washington to shout that their taxes are too high and the government should get out of their lives, many of them used Washington’s publicly funded subway system to get around. Isn’t that socialism?

A large number of the tea party protesters relied on DC’s transit system to get around the city. The Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) reported that on Sept. 12, metrorail ridership was double compared to an average Saturday. The Washington metro, of course, is public transit — in other words, it’s run by big government.

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It’s worth pointing out that the phrase “publicly funded” might be a bit of a misnomer, since the system has had problems maintaining service and even safety standards due to chronic government underfunding and further cutbacks resulting from the recession. But what makes this story extra interesting is that a Republican congressman from Texas, Kevin Brady, was so disappointed by the service the protesters received that he wrote to complain.

“These individuals came all the way from Southeast Texas to protest the excessive spending and growing government intrusion by the 111th Congress and the new Obama administration,” Brady wrote. “These participants, whose tax dollars were used to create and maintain this public transit system, were frustrated and disappointed that our nation’s capital did not make a great effort to simply provide a basic level of transit for them.”

A spokesman for Brady says that “there weren’t enough cars and there weren’t enough trains.” Brady tweeted as much from the Saturday march. “METRO did not prepare for Tea Party March! More stories. People couldn’t get on, missed start of march. I will demand answers from Metro,” he wrote on Twitter.

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Who is Kevin Brady? Well, he’s a frequent critic of government expenditure, apparently. Indeed, when a bill came forward authorizing $150 million for emergency maintenance (soon after two trains crashed, if I recall correctly), Brady voted against it. So it seems a little rich that Brady would complain about the inadequate level of service Washington’s metro offered, given that he had an opportunity to do something about it and actively sought to throw that opportunity away.

Brady defends his decision, however, and does not see the hypocrisy. The Metro, he says, “routinely adds or subtracts cars to meet demand, daily or on weekends, I would expect them to make those same adjustments for this rally, a local sporting event, or any event where they expect increased ridership.” And as for why he voted against sending emergency maintenance funding to the DC metro? Well, because it was part of a stimulus package and that package “supposed to be for creating jobs, for creating new lines and expanding and modernizing their existing facilities.” Thus, it had “nothing to do with the day to day operations of it.”

Yup, you read that right: Brady feels aggrieved enough to complain about the shoddy Metro service in DC, while at the same time justifying voting against funds that would have helped fix up the same shoddy service. This is what is called cognitive dissonance. And the man assumes that the organizers of the protest called Metro to warn them of this added traffic, when it’s just as likely that Metro management had far less warning about this uptick in ridership than they’d have from, say, a Washington Redskins game.

What I’m seeing here is a fundamental misunderstanding of how public infrastructure is supposed to work. It is unfortunately not uncommon. Consider the Toronto Transit Commission in the late 1980s and the 1990s, when politicians of all stripes pursued billion dollar expansion plans but pooh-poohed the idea that funds should be spent to keep trains frequent, clean and safe. Politicians are happy to spend our dollars for new roads, new subways, new infrastructure, but then want to walk away with the expectation that it will just take care of itself forever, and never need more money to keep it running through the years. And they’re so, so surprised when service starts to get infrequent or overcrowded, or when trains start to break down, or even shoot past faulty signals and crash into each other.

This is what happened in Toronto on August 11, 1995, when a inadequately trained subway driver slipped his train past a faulty signal and rammed the back of another train stopped in the tunnel between Dupont and St. Clair West stations. For Toronto at least, this accident was a wake-up call — a low point for the TTC and the city that we had to claw our way up from. And, fortunately, we were blessed with civic leaders and a general manager at the TTC who took the lesson to heart, poured as much money as they could into maintaining the existing system and seeking to increase ridership through less showy moves as running the subways at frequencies of five minutes or better, regardless of ridership. Most recently, the ridership growth strategy now puts most of the city of Toronto within 300 metres of a transit stop service by a bus or streetcar operating at thirty minute intervals or better whenever the subway is open. Unfortunately, penny-wise and pound-foolish voices are being raised decrying the “waste” of tax dollars on “mostly-empty” buses that people might not always use at that time of night, but sometimes need.

It’s clear that these protesters in DC, as well as the politicians who support them, believe that there is a place for some publicly funded infrastructure in their lives. But many do not seem to understand that maintaining that infrastructure costs money, their money. And if they want to continue to receive the benefit of the services they helped pay for, that’s why they have to pay the taxes they’re complaining about paying.

Suck it up, people: running a country isn’t easy, and it isn’t free. If you want police to stop criminals from invading your home, fire fighters to keep it from burning down, ambulance drivers to take you to hospital, and the roads for the ambulance to drive on, not to mention an army to protect your country from invasion as well as protecting your interests abroad, you have to pay for it. And as those who campaign against government “excess” quickly learn, these payments and other items just like it comprise 99% of the government’s expenditure, so don’t expect to find enough fat that can be trimmed to bring taxes substantially lower.

You want lower taxes? You have some hard decisions to make about your own quality of life, from the schools your kids attend to the quality of your drinking water, and how often your garbage gets taken from your home. It’s as simple as that. It might be socialism, but it’s one of the things keeping capitalism alive.


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