There's no such thing as a free lunch, or snowplow

February 12, 2010|By Jay Hancock

Every politician from a colder clime probably knows the story of Chicago Mayor Michael A. Bilandic, who was heavily favored to win the 1979 Democratic primary but lost after voters blamed him for botching the cleanup of a huge snowstorm.

Comparing himself and his administration to Jesus and the 12 disciples probably didn't win Bilandic many votes, either. But it was the snow and impassable Chicago side streets that were seen to do him in. Since then, the need to seem alert and effective in snowstorms has been an essential part of the pol catechism.

So, Gov. Martin O'Malley (who looks a little like Bilandic in his younger days) and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake were all over the news this week, looking confident, dispensing practical advice and keeping upper lips stiff.

But O'Malley's best turn came when he momentarily went off message and reminded Marylanders that there is no snow-removal fairy.

"Stop already with the 'scrape my street down to the pavement.' That cannot happen for the next 72 hours," he said on Wednesday, according to various news accounts. "The best we can do is send the plows down, with the plow up to make them passable by tapping down, and tramping down, that snow to make it passable for the Humvees and the emergency crews."

So maybe it's not quite up there with John F. Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you." Even so, O'Malley did something politicians rarely do: He told the truth about ways, means and wishes.

It's the most basic lesson in economics. Resources are scarce. There is not enough money in the world to buy everything we want, when we want it. We have to choose. And choosing always means trade-offs between costs and benefits.

In a perfect world, Maryland would have as many snowplows per "lane-mile" of road as Minnesota. The state and localities would buy thousands of out-of-the way acres for dumping snow. Standby drivers would be hired.

When the storm of the century arrived, everything would be paraded out like firetrucks on the Fourth of July. The "scrape my street down to the pavement now" folks would be appeased.

Most of the time, of course, the standby snowplows would just sit there, diverting millions in tax money from other critical services. Then the "scrape my street" people could complain about rising crime, poor schools and imperfect trash collection.

This is not an excuse to mismanage the resources that you already have, as Bilandic did in Chicago, or as the administration of President George W. Bush did in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Rather, it's stating the obvious. A few days of snowy inconvenience after an epic storm are a small price to pay for being able to invest in Maryland's more critical needs.

But Americans these days don't seem to want to pay small prices to get bigger benefits. They want it all.

They want comprehensive, high-tech health coverage at low premiums. They want Medicare forever without any reduction in benefits or increase in taxes. Lately, the Republicans, the formerly fiscally responsible party, have encouraged the delusion that this is possible.

Americans want cheap foreign gas but don't want to think about the associated national-security risks. They want huge cars and clear skies and terrific mileage.

They want great prices on big-screen TVs and furniture, but then they complain about poor store service.

They want low taxes and perfect government services and even the hugest snow accumulations cleared from streets within hours.

Politicians talk a good game about belt-tightening and limited resources generally. But when it comes to specific programs championed by important interest groups, they bring out the magic wand.

Yes, O'Malley was playing the "under-promise, over-deliver" game when he talked about how long it would take to plow. The roads the next day looked pretty good. Lots of pavement.

For once, however, it was nice to hear some semblance of political tough love.

As a society we can argue about what choices we should make. But to pretend that we don't have to make any choices, that there are no economic trade-offs, is political fraud.

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