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August 2007
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Debt and infrastructure

Drug WarRant commenter Kaptinemo has often talked about the financial aspects of the war on drugs within the context of seriously endangered federal and state budgets.
Well the implications of the collapse of a bridge got me thinking about that some more. While I have no interest in using the bridge disaster as some kind of political finger-pointing weapon, I believe that it is useful to discuss how the bridge collapse makes us think about priorities.
This article by Robbie Gennet in Huffington Post has some interesting (and disturbing) material as a discussion jumping-off point.

Our National Debt is about $9 trillion. That’s almost $30,000 for every man woman and child in the US. The National Debt is owed by the “General Fund” which is funded by our income tax. Most of that goes to the ever-rising interest on that debt and to the military.
The three largest holders of that debt are (in order) Japan, China and the UK. As long as they hold our debt, they OWN us. Interest to Japan alone is $30 billion. […]
Our nation’s infrastructure is underfunded, sometimes dangerously so. Our government can’t afford to fix roads and bridges at the rate that they are deteriorating, leaving us open to more Minneapolis-like disasters. It’s only a shock that it’s taken so long for this to happen. But our government has been put under so much debt that it can’t afford the things that affect us all, rich and poor alike: maintaining our nation’s infrastructure (roads, bridges, sewers, etc), securing our borders, guarding our chemical plants, nuclear plants, refineries, ports and airports adequately (if at all), protecting our food supply, funding the public education system, getting off the oil teat and becoming energy independent or even helping it’s struggling citizens after a disaster like Katrina. People think these things just magically work without realizing that the money to make it all happen comes from somewhere and right now, that somewhere does not exist.

And that is the problem, of course. People seem unable to connect the cost of government with the source of the funding. Everybody says “don’t raise taxes” but nobody complains about government spending (in fact, they seem to want it in unlimited amounts for just about everything), so debt and hidden taxes become the politicians’ friends.
The question is whether, prior to some kind of financial disaster, the people can be persuaded to demand fiscal responsibility (which seems unlikely). How many bridges have to collapse?
Of course, while I fantasize about fiscal responsibility, my thoughts inevitably turn to the criminal justice system. What a bizarre fiscal fairyland! It often seems that accountability is based almost solely on the amount of money you can spend.
Take prosecutors. You’ll hear prosecutors brag about how many people they put behind bars and how long the sentences were — in other words, that they managed to spend as much of the taxpayers’ money as possible. And if they put away more people than there are prisons, well, we’ll just build more prisons. Same with the police. There’s no incentive to find alternative solutions to prison.
Imagine another world — where prosecutors would run for office by bragging about how efficient they were — a world where they were given a limit on overall resources used (and I’m not talking office supplies). Let’s say that a prosecutor was given a maximum of _x_ prison-bed-years to utilize each year. The pressure would be on to use them wisely — you wouldn’t want to use them up on long sentences for pot smokers and not have any left for the murderers, or you’d have hell to pay when it came time for your evaluation (the voters would demand that you and the police focus on the dangerous criminals).
Yeah, I know. I’m dreaming. But it’s a nice dream.
Here’s a start, though. Could not communities or states mandate the publication of an estimated total-cost-per-successful prosecution? This would be a ballpark number including all the projected public costs in current dollars (prosecution, imprisonment, parole, etc.). So, for example, when the newspaper publishes a story about somebody sentenced to 40 years for drug trafficking, they would include “estimated costs in 2007 dollars, assuming serving 80% of time sentenced, comes to $1,385,500.00 for this case.”
I wonder if that would make the costs seem more like real money.

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