My friend's grandmother, a tough, crusty old battleaxe of a woman, lived in a quiet little town in northern Mexico. By all appearances, its inhabitants were utterly destitute. The streets were unpaved. There were no sidewalks. High walls, topped with shards of broken glass, lined the streets, giving no hint of what might lie within. A few emaciated curs looked for scraps, or slept in the shade. There were no trees, no grass, no public spaces besides the street.
But within the walls, it was a different story. Each hidden house had a lovely interior garden, cool and private, where trees grew, fountains splashed, and flowers bloomed profusely in the high desert sun. The rich and near-rich lived well, in protected oases of privilege. Everyone else lived in dusty shantytowns, without sewer systems, street lights or even safe drinking water. Private affluence, public squalor.
Back in Colorado Springs a few weeks later, I realized that the things I took for granted -- the street trees, the parks, the public schools, the paved streets, the friendly cop -- didn't just happen. They were the product of a communitarian society, one that believed that the prosperity of the few was far less important than the well-being of the many. The contrast with Mexico was simple and compelling. That trip through a poor, corrupt and profoundly unequal society convinced me that America's strength is in its commitment to the public sector.
But over the last few decades, that commitment has eroded.
Like that of Mexico of the 1950s, our national government seems determined to make life as easy as possible for the rich, and to spend as little as possible on the bricks and mortar of the public sector. That's why the New Orleans levees breached.
Our national infrastructure -- highways, national parks, rivers, lakes, agricultural lands -- are underfunded, neglected, degraded, ignored.
But take a look at the vast pyramid of entitlement spending that truly defines government: the pointless military expenditures, lavish pension plans, the selective largesse doled out to the wealthy elderly, thousands of special-interest tax breaks. Take a look, and you'll see why there's not enough money to actually, like, fix things.
We're no different in Colorado. The so-called Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, an amendment meant to curb the growth of government, was so poorly conceived that it has only prevented government from doing its job. Spending on transportation and higher education has plummeted in the last few years, thanks to federal mandates, special-interest initiatives and TABOR's absurd "ratchet" effect.
Meanwhile, at least one privileged group doesn't have to worry: public sector workers who are covered by PERA, Colorado's generous defined-benefit pension plan. It's presently underfunded by $12 billion, but even if its managers don't get lucky in the stock market and make up the deficit (fat chance!), the beneficiaries will be fine. The state'll make up the difference.
Instead of funding efficient, egalitarian programs that benefit everyone in the country (universal health care? free higher education? universal broadband access?), our government hands out the dough to the powerful, the clever and the well-connected. That's why we, as Americans, pay far more for lousy health care than other first-world nations pay for good health care. That's why a Wal-Mart clerk making little more than minimum wage may well see her taxes used to bail out state pensioners who retired from six-figure jobs.
None of this is exactly a secret, is it? You'd think that the folks who run government, at every level, would be smart enough to change things. And some of 'em even have tried. (Remember Hillary's health care initiative?) But we can't seem to actually make it happen.
And a little reminder: We've got three more years of George W. Bush, arguably the least competent president in American history. Maybe it's time for another road trip. I hear that you can retire cheaply in Mexico, if you don't mind the poverty and corruption.
Just build your wall high enough.