Public Services

Once upon a time, governments in the US and Canada embarked on programs to provide services to their citizens that were felt to be essential for all citizens but otherwise unlikely to be profitable for private enterprise. Rural electrification comes to mind. Municipal water supplies, mail, highway construction, even public health programs. As a former Canadian Prime Minister opined — ‘governments do what (only) governments can do’. I chose to interpret this as to mean that nation building sometimes means that government services may not be uniformly profitable when provided for every citizen but the effect of those services will benefit all.

That was then. Now it seems that the rule is profit must be derived from everyone. If servicing them is not profitable then they are simply cut off or made to pay steep costs unrelated to those of their fellow citizens in more fortunate areas. So we have the mail services being consolidated to group public dumping sites (regional mail boxes), rural electric power rates a multiple of what urban denizens pay, transportation being reduced to private car or nothing as rail and bus services are rolled back outside urban areas. And while governments have lots of money to spend bombing some poor slob on the other side of the planet, they have little to repair roads, build transit or operate hospitals in rural areas. The mantra is ‘economies of scale’ (which they do not understand), so it is seen as better to consolidate services into a mega-hospital in Toronto and shutdown the regional ERs. If the patient dies on the four hour drive then think of the money we saved…

I sometimes think that the MBA disease — how much money did we make this afternoon, and who cares what that did for long term prospects, has infected society from top to bottom. Long term planning is sacrificed for short term gains, however minor. Look at the last election — the ruling party in Ontario blew 1 billion dollars in cancellation fees by shutting down two regional power plant constructions to save a few parliamentary seats. That they are building a replacement plant within eyesight of this author next to an idled power plant is beyond belief — transmission losses pushing the output 200km suggests the original siting near point of need made sense. Besides, Ontario has a growing power surplus that is costing us all dearly and is projected to continue doubling costs every five or six years. Other than government employees, who would want to live in such a place?

So the roads and bridges are crumbling, ferry services where they have been too cheap to build bridges is struggling while strangling the economic development of the serviced areas. The towns that once had thriving local industries are dying all around us. Government policy it seems is that instead of 25 local dairy farms there are 2 or 3 because the one place they can sell their milk doesn’t like diverse suppliers — too much paperwork. And the variety of local cheeses is replaced by mega-corp bland products — made in multi-ton batches and predictable though flavorless.

A long time ago I ran into a comment that said, in effect, that all politics are local. The reason the leaders of large aggregates of people seem so unresponsive is that the world looks different from there. At that distance the issues of large pools of people merge and vanish. And besides, how can they keep track? Probably means that our ideas of government are wrong. Democracy works when the population is small enough that the leaders have a chance of knowing the electorate — like the Scandinavian countries. In Canada even the provincial aggregates are too large — the Premier, surrounded as she is with Toronto, just cannot imagine anything other that the big city. Rural areas get the hindmost, so to speak.

And looking at the costs of fixing what the big cities have now — the numbers are almost science fiction. No place in the budget for that. And besides, if a few potholes did go away, how many votes would that garner? The reality is that the infrastructure, like our society, is just falling apart from neglect. I am now wondering what it will take for people to start just walking away from it?

Schumacher was right. Small is beautiful — it is affordable, maintainable and likely governable. But as long as our leaders are infected with the disease that clamors bigger, bigger, bigger, ever more, our ability to live in a functional environment becomes ever more distant.