Saturday

March 25th, 2017

Insight

Race to the bottom

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published May 3, 2016

It's an ugly sight

It's not easy to choose from so many contenders in a crowded field, but choosing the worst example of federal waste, extravagance, and just plain awful policy is starting to become clear in our crystal ball. As the clouds slowly part, the winner is, no, not the Internal Revenue Service this time but, the envelope, please ... the National Park Service.

What? The nice people who run the national parks and do all other manner of good works across the country? Can it be? Not only can it be, it is. The NPS' chief administrator and troublemaker is Jonathan B. Jarvis, whom you might remember from the national crisis, government shutdown and general foofaraw of 2013, only three years and a millennia or two ago as these national crises are reckoned.

Back then, Mr. Jarvis not only shut down nearly every national park, memorial site and general national treasure in sight but dispatched guards to keep the American public at bay. From the World War II memorial in the nation's capital to scenic Mount Rushmore, lest innocent motorists be able to see the national monument as they happened to be passing by. Talk about mean, that was just plain vicious. But there is no quarter given in these budgetary wars. These people would take tin cups away from the blind if they could. And make Inspector Javert look generous and forgiving.

Only we're not talking about fictional villains here but real-life incompetents who can hardly be bothered even to get their paperwork in order. The cost of fixing the once beautiful Arlington Memorial Bridge, a model of American architecture and city planning once upon a now forgotten time, has been put at $150 million, a pittance in a federal budget that now goes into the billions and billions.

The federal Transportation Department's ironically named FASTLANE has some $800 million to spend. National Park Service officials and the city of Washington, D.C., submitted an application just before the April 14 deadline seeking funds to repair the corroded bridge. Not just Republican but Democratic lawmakers were apoplectic over this near-dereliction of duty and common sense. But what, our bureaucrats worry? They're too busy cashing their generous paychecks at your expense, duped taxpayer.

Are there words to describe such incompetence compounded by just plain laziness? If so, they fail us. Even local lawmakers in the nation's capital -- all of them Democrats, of course, this being the District of Columbia and a Democratic stronghold. One disgrace followed another as this episode unfolded, and it's far from over even now. As embarrassment follows embarrassment, partisan scandal after partisan scandal. Lest we forget, some 68,000 drivers cross this bridge every day, or at least used to before it was found to be falling apart.

Its beautiful statues, its splendid art work, its classic and classical monuments at each end, forget 'em all. Your federal government has forgotten them, or maybe never noticed them in the first place. The result is the usual squalor that marks every government project from housing to highways.

It's the all too well-known tragedy of the commons. For if everybody owns something, nobody does. Nor is anybody willing to take responsibility for its sad condition. Whether we're talking about a communal farm on a kibbutz or a communal dining hall in the U.S. Army, where KP is despised.

Whether we're talking about Arlington National Cemetery, formerly the home of Robert E. Lee, or any other piece of federal land that has been taken, the same story goes on and on. At last the Feds are taking their revenge not only on the old general but on history itself. But who cares these days any more than they did during the Civil War/War Between the States/War of Northern Aggression, whichever appellation you prefer? Who cares these days even though there was a time when Americans cared very much, indeed bitterly?

Perhaps it's just as well, for memory is a useful servant but a tyrannical master. And the living must soldier on. And should. Or as a ragged private told old Stonewall Jackson, aka Thomas Jonathan Jackson, general, CSA, "I'll be damned if I ever love another country." One can understand his bitterness without, all these years later, sharing it. Let the dead bury their dead. The living must go on, well, living. It is our fate and liberation, our destiny and damnation.

That was a terrible conflict, our war between brothers, but let it lie there now in peace or what passes for it these ever confusing days. To quote W.H. Auden, we must love one another or die.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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