A (somewhat) small example of why planning and government matter
Sometimes a fascinating story comes across my desk that seems rather mundane on the surface. This week’s champion is courtesy of the Panama City News-Herald (hat tip: Jason Combs of 37th Street Town Planning) The story is one I’ve seen repeated all across America, so I’m not here to pick on Panama City necessarily. It just happens to be a crystal-clear illustration of why planning matters and, by extension, what the need and proper role is for government.
The story, linked here, describes Bay County’s desire to help out rural residents who live on privately owned and built infrastructure. This year the county experienced historic levels of rainfall, and the result took its toll on the roads especially. From the article:
The County Commission Tuesday expressed interest in helping these residents who live on dirt roads that the county does not own or maintain.
The summer’s historic rainfall levels left many private roads impassable, due to massive holes and jagged ruts caused by the rushing water. The roads were so bad that some school buses could not take kids all the way home and were forced drop them off to walk the final stretch.
At Tuesday’s commission meeting, Charles Mitchell of the Youngstown area pleaded with the board to pitch in during these storms so rural residents wouldn’t be stranded.
“It just doesn’t make sense to me that with this large segment of people affected that some kind of emergency action couldn’t be initiated to help the people out,” he said, adding, “It’s always been my understanding that the government, whether federal, state or local, was — part of their mission — was to help people when they couldn’t help themselves.”
Now, there’s a lot to pick at with this piece, and no small amount of snarky comments that could be made. But I’d like to focus on what this says about the need for good planning and the resistance it often faces. And, how often that resistance is strongest in rural areas.
I’m not about to look down my nose at people who choose to live in a rural area. I get it – it’s quiet, you’re surrounded by nature, you can see the stars. It’s got real appeal, even for city boys like me. I don’t want to live that way day in and day out, but I certainly understand why some people prefer it.
But I am going to talk about the need for smart planning, whether an area is urban or rural. Smart planning means that someone has to be charged with looking out for the long-term and especially for the long-term good of all. In a free society, we elect and appoint people to these roles. That’s what we call government. Government is not some separate entity; it’s "we the people" entrusting leaders and their delegates to plan for the long-term good of all of us.
By nature we are all focused on the short-term. We think about the bills we have to pay, the money we need to make, the health concern we have, the fun we’d like to enjoy and on and on. Businesses are charged to look at how they make money this quarter and this year. Investors need a return within a specified (often short) timeframe. We all want to maximize our own dollars whenever we can.
But when the short-term is all we cater to, long-term concerns don’t get heeded and we pay the price. Or in some cases our kids and grandkids pay the price because we pass the bill to them.
In a family, the difficult role of being a parent means you have to look out for the long-term good of your children. A lot of times that means saying no to something they want to do, or having kids learn the price and consequences of choices they make. Letting kids do whatever they want, whenever they want is called bad parenting, or even neglect.
Unfortunately, our real-world politics seem to follow the plot of a children’s fairy tale. We assume people will always do things well, and there won’t ever be negative consequences. Now why would someone with a good heart do something foolish? But in fact people do take short cuts, and it's often very predictable.
In an effort to be accommodating we let people do what they want to do, often with rules that are loose and minimal oversight. People being people, most will build cheaply and not think of the long-term. Then, the long-term shows up, and we realize that something deficient was built. People still demand services (such as fire and police), but now roads and buildings and infrastructure have to be repaired so services can be performed. That costs money.
It's a little bit like our relationship toward food and health. The cheapest food is the worst for our health. In the short term, that's usually not an issue. Our bodies can tolerate the occasional indulgences. But a few years or a couple of decades of eating poorly will impact your health. You will absolutely end up with higher medical bills than if you'd spent a little more money for good food and just eaten healthy all along. Medical professionals will tell you this - it's why we consult with them.
In this case in Bay County, FL a federal agency (the oft-despised FEMA) will likely pay most of the tab for the roads. Which of course means we all pay the tab. That’s right – everyone in America is helping to fix roads in a rural area in Florida because they weren’t built properly to begin with. With proper design and construction, they would have been able to withstand a rainy year with only minimal repair. But because we don’t want “government” to tell people what they can and can’t do, and we know doing things well costs more money, we often just permit anything and say, "what's the harm?" Left to their own devices, people then build substandard infrastructure. Imagine that.
This is leadership by 3rd graders.
In general, I’m sympathetic to the commenter in the article who said,
“government, whether federal, state or local, was — part of their mission — was to help people when they couldn’t help themselves.”
But for those who harp endlessly about subsidies, bailouts and personal responsibility, where is the same thought here? These are private improvements after all - essentially very long driveways to the homes in this area. Except, that they're not. They're the cheapest way someone could get roads built to a rural home, and now they need expensive repairs.
Again, I have absolutely no beef with people choosing to live in a rural environment. But rural shouldn’t mean dumb. Choices have to be made, bills have to be paid, and most importantly: someone has to look beyond the short-term decision of a given house or a given road. That’s the job of planners: it’s why we have them in local government, much like we have doctors for our health. They are trained to balance everyone’s interest and look out for the common good. It’s part of the code of ethics.
The childish discussion that we have ad nauseum is that government is always evil or always great. In the meantime, real projects get built and real people’s lives are affected. The intelligent discussion I wish we could have is about the proper means and methods of oversight. What is effective? To what degree? What are the measurables? What are the financial implications beyond our 5-year budget cycle? How much weight do we place on future residents and their needs?
These are all much harder and more nuanced but where people are who live in the real world. We have a whole subculture that demonizes planners, promotes absurd conspiracy theories and attacks government for trying to fulfill their role. I'm not saying all planners are great, but we do have them for a reason. Many work very hard and take their role very seriously. Perhaps with enough failures like this people can begin to listen and respect them for the professionals they are. Or, we can continue to behave like spoiled children. There's always a choice.