Monday, July 27, 2009


Sam Smith

America has a population of over 300 million. If the only people who really know how to run healthcare, revive the economy or teach our children are our president, the people he appoints and those who work for them, we are in deep trouble.

Even worse, Barack Obama and his appointees are not immortal, so there is every chance that some day they will be replaced by people of the likes of Richard Cheney or Alberto Gonzalez. If the powers that the Obama administration has assumed, or wants to assume, for itself are passed on to those of such ilk, we are in even deeper trouble.

Our founders, some of whom were possibly brighter than Obama's czars, czarinas, cabinet secretaries, and TARP ayatollahs, understood this. That's why they set up three supposed equal branches of government and thought they had reserved to the states and citizens those rights not enumerated in the Constitution.

Obama and his aides don't seem to understand this. Without even entering the matter of whether they are really as smart as they think they are, this purported benefit will last about seven years at best, which is - by way of example - three years short of when we'll know whether Obama's healthcare plan costs what he claims.

There is an underlying theme of concentration of power in Obama's economic, health and education plans. In more than a few cases, the concentration is unprecedented, witness the attempt to dismantle local control of public education. The implicit - albeit unspoken - justification for these changes is that those making them are among the smartest people in our society and therefore will best look after our interests.

I think about this every time I drive the five miles of road between my house and downtown Freeport, Maine. I have never seen the road in such lousy condition and I keep asking myself, where's the stimulus when you need it? All over the state, roads are hurting and though we have spent more money in less time to get the national economy going, unemployment is at near record levels while such basic and once simple projects seem beyond the capacity of Washington to do anything about.

One of the reasons is that while Freeport is shovel ready, Barack Obama isn't. His administration has set up a maze of bureaucratic and technocratic obstacles to getting money to where it can make a difference in a short period - thanks in no small part to the assumption that the federal government is our best guardian of money and quality.

Of course, one need to look no further than the Pentagon or the Department of Housing & Urban Development to know that this isn't true.
In fact, when it comes to money, the feds have always done best moving it from one place to another - i.e. Social Security and Medicare or to the state and local level. There will be inefficiency and corruption at both levels, but they are usually less costly and easier to spot.

One of the reasons we don't realize this - and thus casually lump a bridge to nowhere into the same category as some congress members' bill to help fund a local arts center - is because of the liberal hostility towards devolution.

This didn't used to be the case. The New Deal and Great Society didn't have this hang-up and the left in the 1960s had a strong devolutionary bent. But in more recent years there has been a growing liberal disdain for decisions made at the state and local level.

Part of this, I suspect, has to do with liberalism become an increasingly upscale politics with more of its constituency educated to believe in the exceptionalism of their education. A sort of edocracy has developed, where it is assumed that if you have the right people and the right research, democracy just doesn't matter than much any more.

This view is reflected in the prevailing assumption that schooling to the test is the best way educate our young. Missing from this, among other things, are subjects not often taught like working well with others, gaining consensus, and melding sources of information. How often, for example, does an economist ever listen to a farmer?

And so the road I travel remains unusually bumpy and cracked. If anyone in Washington had asked me, I would have said, just send them the money and worry about something else, like getting out of stupid wars.

And I might point them to an article I did for the Washington Post 22 years ago about how Freeport handles the snow compared to nation's capital. In it I noted


Al Thompson is superintendent of roads in Freeport, Maine, with a population about one percent of that of the District. But what Maine lacks in people, it makes up in roads, so Al Thompson has about 12 percent of Washington's asphalt mileage to look after.

Now Al doesn't have anything like the equivalent of Connecticut and Wisconsin avenues in his charge, and the local politicians tend to realize that nature often is impervious to memos, directives and policy guidelines. On the other hand, he works without the benefit of Snow Command Centers, Computerized Cancellation Centers and Codes Yellow. What he does have is five trucks with 12-foot dustpans and 11-foot wings.

How long does it take his trucks to cover 130 miles? Says Al: "An hour and a half, an hour and three-quarters." Then it takes another three hours for a second "cleanup" trip.

To put it in D.C. terms, that would mean, with the number of vehicles we've got (if properly equipped), you theoretically could sweep through the city in a couple of hours. Since it is clear our trucks are outmoded and not properly equipped, let's look at it another way: 25 good snow plows could, using the Maine standard, run through every street in the city in nine hours.

I picked 25 because that's the number of snowplows D.C. gave the National Guard back in 1980 to help in emergencies but which the Pentagon said it couldn't use because of liability problems. The trucks never were given back and disappeared from sight until Thursday, when it was announced that the National Guard would be using 25 plows to help keep D.C. clear.

Now, before someone at the District Building picks up the phone to tell The Post about "complex urban problems," let me tell you about George Flaherty. He's director of parks and public works for Portland, Maine. Portland is about one-tenth the size of D.C. but has nearly 30 percent of its street mileage. He uses about a quarter of D.C.'s equipment and expects to have the job done in 8 to 10 hours. . .

Here are some figures that will give you a rough idea of the costs of closing down D.C. for a day: the D.C. government spends $3 million a day on its payroll; the federal government spends close to $20 million a day for its D.C. payroll; private businesses spend another $30 million. What did D.C. budget for snow removal? Just under $1 million. Calculate the odds yourself.


Now Al Thompson has retired as highway director, but I still suspect his successor and people like him all over the country have a better handle on their roads than the president's Small Town Road Czar or whoever is keeping the money from coming this way.

It might help if the Obama people would trade in a few of their pie charts for some humble pie and accept the idea that in this fair land are many who know more about some things than they do, give them some money to help them do it, and then step back and enjoy the resulting success instead of just still more problems.