Snow Daze

When you hire the cavalry, you expect it to show up.

In the wintertime, that means the men who drive the snow plows and the anti-ice machines, in order that the city does not grind to a complete halt, preventing everyone from going about their day.

When the cavalry doesn’t show up—on time or at all—that’s when you start asking questions.

This, in so many words, is the whole basis of government.  We agree, as a people, that we want our government to provide us with certain services upon which we can depend, and in return for these services the government may deposit a bill at the end of the year.

Like any such transactions, it’s all based on trust:  I will pay X dollars provided that you deliver service Y.  However, if you don’t, then I won’t.  You can’t get a squarer deal than that.

However, when it comes to the government, there’s a hitch:  Even when the authorities fail to deliver the services in question, we still have to pay our taxes, giving us the distinct impression that we’ve been robbed.  And that’s where much of our collective distrust in government begins.

The trick, and the challenge, is determining when such anti-government gripes are warranted and when they are not.

The citizens of the City of New York experienced a slight but irritating abridgment of their right to properly plowed roads last month, when the city’s anti-snow brigades failed to clear certain sections of Manhattan’s Upper East Side in a timely fashion following a particularly nasty storm.

Some residents of those neighborhoods felt deliberately slighted—an instance of a pro-working class mayor, Bill de Blasio, sticking it to the uber rich.  While such suspicions have hardly proved well-founded—de Blasio staunchly denied any political or socioeconomic motives for the city’s selective snow plowing—the broader point is perfectly legitimate, indeed.

After all, snow storms are an entirely predictable phenomenon in the Northeast.  Why shouldn’t New York be prepared for every possible contingency?  New Yorkers certainly pay their taxes on the assumption that it is.

A year ago this week, the city of Boston faced a more comprehensive and evenly-distributed lack of snow removal in the wake of Winter Storm Nemo, which dumped more than two feet of white powder on New England’s largest city.  Although the actual precipitation from this nor’easter tapered off by Saturday afternoon, Boston city schools had to be closed Monday and Tuesday, because the roads still had not been adequately cleared.

We in the Town of Beans were right to ask, “What the hell happened?”

The apparent answer, in both Boston and New York, was a boring but calamitous combination of poor preparation and poor coordination.  The cavalry was there, but those responsible for calling it into action were completely out to lunch.  There was no good excuse, and officials hardly troubled themselves to offer one.

Then there’s the case of Atlanta, which early last week was crippled by one of the most spectacular traffic jams in modern times, following a seemingly tame snowfall of no more than three inches.

Initially, we callous Northerners found the whole episode hilarious—the perfect illustration of Southerners’ ineptitude when it comes to facing winter weather.

Upon further review, what it actually illustrated was the toxic convergence of poor management with poor voting decisions.

As explained in an enormously helpful primer by Rebecca Burns in Politico, the Atlanta metro area is an unwieldy labyrinth of dozens of local municipalities, each with its own set of executives making decisions independent of all the others.  More so than most other major U.S. hubs, the government of the greater Atlanta region is decentralized to the point of making nightmares like last week’s traffic jam more or less inevitable.

But that’s not the whole story.

In 2012, the people of Atlanta were given the opportunity to approve a “Transportation Special-Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax,” which would have allotted $7.2 billion over ten years for a series of projects that, at least in theory, would have greatly improved and streamlined the city’s complex web of public arteries, and may well have lowered the risk of large-scale breakdowns like the one that just occurred.

The people of Atlanta rejected the initiative by a nearly 2:1 margin, suspecting the city would not spend the money wisely.

As such, however well-placed such fears might have been, it is equally fair to say that last week’s snowy traffic meltdown was not entirely the fault of government.  It was also, in part, a consequence of the public deciding a less gridlock-prone highway system was not worthy of their precious tax dollars.

As they say, sometimes you get what you pay for.  Or in this case, what you choose not to pay for in the first place.

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