Fast Train Coming?
In search of a metaphor for the gulf that separates the nation’s political parties? Look no further than the high-speed locomotive. Adored by many Democrats, who wax poetic about a speed and efficiency of communal travel, trains have become a favorite target of conservative Republicans, who fret about their cost. In the last six months, Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin have turned down federal money for rail construction because, they argue, they cannot afford their share of the bill.
Ignore for a moment the political calculus that may be at work in these state capitals. (High-speed rail is a signature project of the Obama administration, which has pledged $53 billion to improve the nation’s trains.) The idea that train travel is just not an investment worth making should give every citizen pause. In the short term, rail improvements provide jobs, a prospect that any governor should welcome. And in the long term, it is a good bet that such investments will turn a profit. Dwight Eisenhower’s interstate highway system has proven to be a real moneymaker. Imagine if local governments had turned down funding because they did not want pay for the entrance ramps.
In a country as large as the United States, wedded as it is to the automobile, trains will never be as popular or prevalent as they are in Europe. Yet President Obama’s plan is not overly ambitious; it seeks to improve regional transportation and existing rail corridors. Few investments could do more to boost the country’s recovery and wean it from dependence on oil. One need not be a railroad buff to see that.
Congress Kills the Dialogue
Of all the proposed budget cuts, the most shortsighted is the determination to shut down the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which helps support NPR and PBS). The House voted in February to cut all funding. Not one Republican objected.
Perhaps it is a kabuki drama, playacting to threaten a news source like PBS—which bends over backward to be impartial and whose corporate president is a Republican, Patricia S. Harrison—into becoming even more conservative or silent. But a defunded version of PBS and NPR would be more dependent on corporate sponsorship and less free to speak truth to power. Culture would also be dumbed down and democracy’s dialogue reduced to a stammer.
The news media are already gasping for breath. News outlets have laid off reporters, cut investigative staffs and dropped book and classical music reviewers. Meanwhile the public stations have been the closest thing we have to a national university, where high culture is available free to low income people who might otherwise never hear an opera.
Some congressmen want the media to be weak and want to leave the news delivery and classical music to the free market system. So it’s back to the wasteland of laugh-track sitcoms, celebrity gossip and the ravings of Charlie Sheen as the volume surges for commercials and drug ads. And goodbye Beethoven, “American Experience,” the “News Hour,” “The Civil War,” “Frontline,” “Car Talk,” “Prairie Home Companion,” “Charlie Rose” and Sherlock Holmes. The United States, says Congress, just cannot afford you.
Welcome to Tax-Dodge City, a 100-year-old municipality where business booms. Today 1,800 businesses enjoy its lax regulation, low taxes and cheap utilities. The city council also has made elections hassle-free. Not one election was contested between 1984 and 2006, and now the council conveniently appoints its members. Who would vote, anyway? The population of the city is 95.
Yet Tax-Dodge owns the power and light, fire, police and health departments and every house, all 30 of them, which are rented to city workers and relatives of city officials. In Tax-Dodge, municipal salaries are high. In 2008 the city reportedly paid $1.65 million to a man who served as both city administrator and deputy city attorney; he still works as a consultant. The $500,000 annual pension of a retired city administrator is the state’s highest.
What is the city’s secret? Virtually all 50,000 local workers commute to Tax-Dodge from real towns where elected governments spend tax revenue on schools, parks and social services for their residents. In Tax-Dodge, the millions raised are divided among a few—a set-up for corruption. One person who served as mayor and councilman for 50 years was convicted of fraudulently claiming Tax-Dodge City as his legal residence. Last year a city administrator was indicted for misappropriation of public funds. The biggest hoax, though, is calling Tax-Dodge a city. Unconvinced, a state assemblyman has sponsored a bill to disincorporate cities with fewer than 151 people.
Businesses in Tax-Dodge say disincorporation would shutter them, and the Teamsters Union opposes any loss of local jobs. But every city must have residents, which is where Tax-Dodge (real name Vernon, Calif.) fails. It might be a great place to work, but no one wants to live there.