In spite of my best efforts, I still think like an economist. Don’t ask me whether that thing is too expensive. Ask me whether it’s worth the price, or whether spending a dollar on that thing is better than spending it on that other thing. During this *unusual* time, the spenders among us are probably thinking a little more like this. Maybe we don’t need 12 pairs of jeans and 30 pairs of shoes. Maybe we don’t need to spend $160 on hair color every month. Maybe we should use the money to plant a garden or support the local food bank. Maybe we should put it away in case one of us gets laid off….
Hopefully, it’s not just us as individuals rethinking, but also us as communities. Americans spend a lot of money on government decisions that can’t possibly reflect our priorities.
Here are a few examples that most of us probably don’t think about much, but increasingly look really dumb:
Traffic Signals — About 20 years ago, local governments lost their minds over traffic signals. The quieter streets these days highlight how ridiculous “traffic engineering” has become in some places. Are you waiting to turn left on a quiet street? The left turn signal will turn green as soon as you see a car coming toward you. Are you creeping along a freeway on-ramp with ten other drivers waiting for the signal that permits one car at a time to enter the freeway? Someone thinks you don’t know how to merge. Oh wait–you still have to merge. Ever sat at a red light for two minutes under an abandoned freeway overpass at 11pm? I haven’t — I run those red lights. A single traffic signal costs $300,000-500,000 and the annual cost to maintain one is $10,000, not including the cost of wasted gas, pollution and drive time. Meanwhile, not enough money in the city budget for housing, pot holes, public transportation….
Glad to see others are noticing this, and using similar language.
Heart Defibrillators — During this crisis, our national community has experienced a shortage of basic, essential medical equipment. But we have a bazillion heart defibrillators in public buildings waiting for someone to have a heart attack. Let’s walk through this. The stranger next to you in the post office is gasping for air. If he’s having a heart attack, you have 5 minutes to make a difference while you hope someone else is calling 911. Are you confident that it’s a heart attack? Are you willing to operate unfamiliar equipment that pumps electricity through a stranger’s body? Probably not. The National Institutes for Health says these machines aren’t making a significant difference but the industry says there are still billions to be made. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1767991/ You might say “ok, it’s a few billion dollars, but if they save some lives, aren’t those lives worth it?” And the answer is “it depends what you care about.” Most people who have heart attacks are over the age of 65 (like me) and survive the time it takes for the ambulance to arrive. More than 4 million children in the US don’t have adequate health care because we, as a society, have decided to buy other things. Like heart defibrillators.
Public Golf Courses — During this “en casa” period, many public golf courses have been closed for golfing but open to the general public for walking. As background and not to put to fine a point on it, public golf courses are welfare for rich people at the expense of, er, common sense. A typical golf course uses 200 acres of land, and they are often in communities that don’t have “room” for adequate housing, like the City of San Francisco, which owns 6 golf courses. That’s right. The City of San Francisco, with 8,000 homeless residents and 1BR apartments renting for $4,000 a month, uses 5% of its total land mass for the exclusive use of a few golfers. https://www.sfexaminer.com/news-columnists/constructive-criticism-keep-sf-golf-courses-closed/ In addition to being subsidized by our tax dollars, golf courses use enormous amounts of water, pesticides and chemical fertilizers. And now as they relax the rules, cities are reopening the golf courses to wealthy golfers and telling the public to stay out. On May 4, the City of San Francisco opened its public golf courses for golfing, but left all other outdoor recreation places closed. WTF?
We could all come up with more examples of ways government spends money that should instead fund real priorities, like schools, health care, environmental protection, and public transportation.
OK, yeah, we have a long way to go.