Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Hope is Our Responsibility, Too

When people talk about Washington, DC, they often forget to mention that in addition to housing the seat of government, people also live there. I am one of them. Should you make your residence in the District, you realize before too long that the news stories, pictures, and live video constantly beamed out focuses on a very small section of town.Hope

Capitol Hill is its own parallel universe, if you will, and one is either wholly beholden to it or views it as a separate entity. Many rely heavily upon the decisions Congress makes as part of their occupations, but they could not be more separate from the actual decision making made by the partisan beehive a few miles away.

What troubles me about the recently passed debt reduction plan is that it shows how irresponsible we as a country have been financially. A kick-the-can-down-the-road approach may be politically expedient, but it is not responsible lawmaking. The District, to cite one example, is infamously known for major issues with ancient, decaying water mains. Once every month or so, it seems, a pipe bursts, flooding everything close by and sometimes causing damage to homes in its path. Some of the mains are over a century old, and some even older than that. There isn't much one can do to fix the entire system, the money just doesn't exist for a complete repair. So if there is any good news about this situation, it is that at least the decrepit main can be replaced with something brand new.

The Metro public transportation system, once a crown jewel of my city, has also lost much of its luster in recent years. It expanded rapidly in the 1990's, increased ridership as a result, and had every right to be a source of civic pride. Now, two years after a fatal rail collision thought to be caused by the failure of aging equipment, insufficient reforms in infrastructure have deteriorated that reputation. Escalators and elevators in stations break down constantly, necessitating extensive and time-consuming repairs. In the midst of a sweltering summer, some older cars don't even have air conditioning.

The entire system is in need of complete refurbishment, not for a course of Botox or a few sessions at the tanning bed. The best solution that has been offered is for older cars to be removed from service and for more workers to be assigned to fix escalators. A new slick ad campaign makes a lot of promises, but Washingtonians above all other people know to be suspicious of expensive campaigns that provide lots of promises.

This is what we have come to in this country. Though the cost seemed massive at the time, the controversial stimulus package did fix and is still fixing roads, interstate highways, and bridges. Because it is spread thinly across the United States, it's difficult to discern the total impact, making it easy for others to be skeptical.

I myself agree with some economists that the stimulus was too small. Metro, in particular, needs a massive infusion of capital to regain its former status. Until then, fares will be increased, bus routes will be eliminated, needed expansions to the system will be put on hold, and workers will not take pride in their jobs. Our country has reached the same state as a formerly stellar, but now less than ideal mass transit system.

An infuriatingly piecemeal approach to governance and problem solving is all we have been offered. Massive structural reforms are what are needed most, but either the money simply isn't present, or those solutions would grind government down to a screeching halt, never winning anyone's approval. We who are not legislators and government figures must find a way to avoid any barely adequate resolution. In the previous two examples I have mentioned, that superficial solutions only make matters worse with time. We may act as though we are grateful for that which we have, fearing we might lose even that should we register a complaint. But dysfunctional systems cry out for change. It was for this reason that we voted in our current president. And if we have learned anything in over two and a half years, it is that government cannot save us.

Direct participation beyond simply marking ballot sheet is the only solution I see. Marching in the streets is not my intent here; responding to a crisis with innovative solutions is more along the lines I'm suggesting. Necessity is the mother of invention, and there is no reason we ought to feel we need to stick with a failing model if we can come up with something better on our own. But we must believe in ourselves first, which is what has tripped all of us up time and time again. When public servants cease to be servants of the public, then we ought to question the system.

We can rail against lobbyist contributions and the corruption of the office, but I think a much better attitude is to place faith in ourselves first. The civility and decorum President Obama has sought to bring to government have been the downfall of his legislative agenda. Even with a solid majority in both the House and Senate, passing and enacting major portions were protracted, unsatisfying, and heated affairs. The t-shirts so many of us wore that were labeled "Hope" showed the face of a man we elected to lead us. I'd have much rather they showed our faces, instead.

Article first published as Hope is our Responsibility, Too on Blogcritics.

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