Wednesday, Oct 03 2012 11:16 AM

The Human Scene: Preventive maintenance

Preventive maintenance is a good idea. We change the oil in our cars, rotate the tires, change the filters in the furnace, and get our annual physical checkup. We repair cracks in the road so they don't become potholes. We replace the roof before it starts leaking. We do required maintenance on our airplanes so they are safe to fly. We do these things, because if we don't, we'll pay more later. If we delay the preventive maintenance because we "can't afford it," we usually find that we have to "afford" some bigger project down the line.

Bridges, airports, locks and dams, traffic control, water supply, sewers, flood control, emergency response systems -- the huge complex of infrastructure systems which are crucial to the functioning of our society; we either pay to maintain them and keep them working, or we pay a lot more later on. Pay now or pay later. The later it gets, the more we pay.

Basic research, health care, clean energy, tax structure, immigration reform, justice system reform, and dozens of other categories of our public business may be seen as preventive maintenance; pay now or pay a lot more later. This is particularly important today, when all levels of government are short of money. When we can spend on some things but not on all things, there is an obvious need to establish priorities. In our highly polarized and politicized public discourse today, it seems the real agenda is to defeat the other side, rather than finding wise choices about how to govern our complex nation and states, how to structure our tax code, and how to spend our money. But we establish priorities, by reasoned choice or by default.

Education is preventive maintenance. Children and young adults in our pre-K-12 and higher education systems are the future of our nation. We pay now for a future adequately educated base for our economy, or pay later the costs of the absence of that base, not only in dollars, but in a less competent work force, higher crime, more family breakdown, more poverty, a less robust entrepreneurial pool, and a radical disadvantage in the increasingly competitive world labor market. China and India are rapidly increasing the educational level of their children, from three year pre-school through graduate school. We're heading in the other direction, with the loss of 300,000 plus education jobs since 2009 with more coming, high dropout rates from high school and college, 22 percent of children in poverty, higher costs for college and grad schools.

We are told we can't afford those things. That is not true. We can afford it We just spend the money on other things. f someone has an $800 per month car payment but can't buy adequate food for the family, we say that person has made a foolish choice. He or she can afford food, but chooses to spend the grocery money on a classy car. What do we say about a state that spends more on prisons than on educating their children? Or a congress that risks the future of the nation and its citizens to give tax cuts to billionaires. Or a pointless war that through time costs enough to restore full funding to education and rebuild a good part of our infrastructure. Those are foolish choices.

Of course, with something so complex and clumsy as federal or state government, it's a bit like trying to turn the Queen Mary with a canoe paddle. We can't just change things overnight. But persons of good will negotiating in good faith can learn to respect one another and seek consensus, for the good of the nation. Can our elected leaders do that? If not, let's find some who can.

Choices have consequences. Bills come due. The America of the future must live with the choices we make today. .

JIM DINSMORE lives in Tehachapi. His column, "The Human Scene" appears regularly in the Tehachapi News.

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