Natalie Bartling stands beneath the streetlight she petitioned to have put on her street five years ago in the city of Colorado Springs, which has just cut off a third of its streetlights. Photo by Dana Romanoff for the New York Times.
You need to read this piece on the drastic cutbacks some cities and states are enduring. The list is a devastating one: school years cut to the bone, public buses eliminated, police service reduced and in the above case, street lamps gone dark.
It doesn't end there. Camden, NJ is preparing to close its libraries, rural counties are unpaving their roads and due to layoffs the Oakland Police Department announced a list of crimes including identity theft, vandalism, grand theft and poisoning they'll no longer respond to (I'm opening bets on how long before a private security contractor is operating in Oakland).
The diagnoses to this dire news have come pouring out. Glenn Greenwald sees the imminent(!) wages of imperial collapse (admittedly Greenwald tends to see that in just about everything), Paul Krugman blames anti-government rhetoric and anti-tax dogma, while Josh Barro points a finger at the rising levels of compensation entrenched, upper-echelon public employees have wrangled for themselves.
Who's right? All of them, to some degree. It is absurd that America spends as much money as it does on the military — more than the rest of the world powers combined. It is absurd that much of those costs arise out of a way of doing business that makes contractors rich off high-tech boondoggles but the average soldier in a bad spot. It is absurd that the average Oakland PD officer costs $162,000 a year and absurd that their union leaders would rather take layoffs than even consider a minimal decrease in their pay. It is absurd that many people believe that you can magically have government services without paying for them (hello California Proposition 13).
But past all that is a deeper problem, I think: the tendency to see government as a vehicle for existential, moral struggle rather than a practical structure to resolve grievances, protect rights, balance power and provide some beneficial services that would be hard to access otherwise.
We have sky high military spending because of decades of "DEFEND!!" drumbeating has resulted in it becoming politically verboten to vote to cut it, regardless of how unwise some of the spending may be, because fighting against the enemy of the day is always a life-or-death struggle. Services have been steadily ramped up, but no one wants to vote for more taxes to pay for them, because taxes are oppression(!), but any cut in services is unthinkable(!).
Not that there shouldn't be ideals involved in politics — there have to be — and not that vicious rhetoric will ever go away (I use it plenty), but there's a need for perspective. Make every policy fight a life or death struggle and real governance becomes impossible. Compromises become not simply good or bad trade-offs, but betrayals. Politicians are measured against fantasies instead of their actual achievements or failures. Matters such as environment, international relations and health care — on which good, smart people can and do disagree, sometimes drastically — become affronts justifying revolution.
It eventually makes the idealistic aspect impossible too, as the publics slowly become numb from the constant assault, increasingly incapable of distinguishing between the latest molehill and an actual outrage. Protest becomes a tribal rite of passage rather than an outpouring of grievance intended to accomplish an actual goal.
All of which, in total, serves makes any discussion of the actual problems increasingly difficult, because if more and more political factions are constantly enraged, even forming a coalition to deal with the issues becomes a Herculean effort.
Paralysis sets in and, eventually, the lights wink out, one by one.