Spend money where it’s truly needed

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - STEVE LOPEZ

In 2012, the en­trance to John Mar­shall High School in Los Feliz was closed to pro­tect stu­dents from fall­ing de­bris. The gothic tower above the en­trance was crum­bling, so awooden plat­form was built atop a tun­nel of scaf­fold­ing to catch fall­ing brick and con­crete.

Three years later, the scaf­fold­ing is still there. The district ear­marked roughly $1mil­lion for the job long ago, and the prin­ci­pal told me last week that she’s hop­ing it won’t be much longer now. But who can say? I pass that school fre­quently, and for me, the scaf­fold­ing is a con­stant re­minder of the shabby state of our schools and other pub­lic in­vest­ments in Cal­i­for­nia and across the na­tion. In Los An­ge­les, wa­ter mains are burst­ing, roads are cratered and side­walks rup­tured.

Here and else­where, the prob­lem is lack of fund­ing, lack of lead­er­ship and poor use of ex­ist­ing funds. But re­ally, this is a story about

na­tional pri­or­i­ties in a coun­try that is poised to in­vest $1.5 tril­lion in the ac­ci­dent­prone F-35 fighter jet but takes years to fix a crum­bling high school tower.

When I wrote about Mar­shall two years ago, I men­tioned the school’s gym­na­sium, where traf­fic cones and crime scene tape were used to cor­don off holes and other haz­ards. At the time, I learned that L.A. Uni­fied had a back­log of more than 30,000 de­ferred main­te­nance projects and nowhere near enough money tomake a dent in the prob­lem.

This is theway it goes na­tion­ally. A2013 report, with a fore­word from­former Pres­i­dent Clin­ton, put the cost of re­pair­ing U.S. pub­lic schools at $270 bil­lion, and it would take twice that­much to mod­ern­ize them.

Shame, and a call to ac­tion, were the ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponses.

In­stead, all we got was a shrug.

Andthe prob­lem isn’t lim­ited to schools. When it comes to tak­ing care of other pub­lic build­ings, roads, bridges, ports and other in­fra­struc­ture, the na­tion’s grade fromthe Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of Civil Engi­neers is a D-plus.

The so­ci­ety’s 2013 report said that 32% of the na­tion’s ma­jor road­ways are in poor or medi­ocre con­di­tion. In Cal­i­for­nia, which got a C-mi­nus fromthe so­ci­ety in 2012, we paid an es­ti­mated $17 bil­lion in car re­pairs be­cause of bad roads, and 2,769 of Cal­i­for­nia’s 24,995 bridges were rated de­fi­cient.

It doesn’t take a ge­nius to un­der­stand the eco­nomic ben­e­fits of main­tain­ing in­fra­struc­ture and the costs of let­ting ev­ery­thing fall apart. The­move­ment of goods, house­hold in­come and in­ter­na­tional trade are all af­fected. But at the de­ci­sion-mak­ing level, lit­tle pri­or­ity is given to those na­tional in­ter­ests, even when pub­lic health is at risk.

Bad road con­di­tions are a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor in an es­ti­mated one-third of the na­tion’s 30,000-plus auto fa­tal­i­ties an­nu­ally. And the re­cent Am­trak ac­ci­dent near Philadel­phia that killed eight peo­ple and in­jured hun­dreds might have been pre­vented if an avail­able safety fea­ture were in place.

The day af­ter the crash, while fam­i­lies grieved, the con­ver­sa­tion in Congress was not about fund­ing the safety fea­ture to save lives in the fu­ture; it­was about how se­verely to shred Am­trak’s bud­get.

When it comes to the mil­i­tary bud­get, though, there’s very lit­tle skimp­ing. An­das the pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates jockey for at­ten­tion, you’ll hear more calls to bol­ster na­tional de­fense. Even lib­er­tar­ian-lean­ing Rand Paul has pro­posed boost­ing de­fense by steal­ing from ed­u­ca­tion, hous­ing and en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion.

It goes with­out say­ing that the U.S. has a unique role in the­world and a great deal to pro­tect. But ask your­self this:

Dowe need to spend more money on our mil­i­tary (about $600 bil­lion this year) than the next seven coun­tries com­bined?

Dowe need1.4 mil­lion ac­tive mil­i­tary per­son­nel and 850,000 re­serves when the en­emy at the mo­ment— ISIS— num­bers in the low tens of thou­sands? If so, it seems there’s some­thing rad­i­cally wrong with our strat­egy.

Should 55% of the fed­eral govern­ment’s dis­cre­tionary spend­ing go to the mil­i­tary and only3% to trans­porta­tion when the toll in Amer­i­can lives is far greater from fail­ing in­fra­struc­ture than from ter­ror­ism?

Does Cal­i­for­nia need nearly as many ac­tive mil­i­tary bases (31, ac­cord­ing to mil­i­tary­bases.com) as it has UC and state univer­sity cam­puses (33)? And does the state need more ac­tive duty mil­i­tary per­son­nel (168,000, ac­cord­ing to Gov­ern­ing mag­a­zine) than pub­lic el­e­men­tary school teach­ers (139,000)?

Ifwe started the na­tional bud­get­ing process from scratch, said Doug Hall of the Na­tional Pri­or­i­ties Project, wouldn’t Amer­i­can­swant tomake some changes?

“For Cal­i­for­nia in 2013, $3.4 bil­lion was spent by the fed­eral govern­ment on trans­porta­tion, and al­most 10 times that­much on mil­i­tary con­tracts,” Hall said.

I give full sup­port to the goal of pre­vent­ing acts of ter­ror­ism on the United States and its in­ter­ests, es­pe­cially given the bar­barism of ISIS. I also sup­port giv­ing mil­i­tary per­son­nel the best equip­ment they need when they’re sent into harm’s way, and the best care avail­able when they come home.

But they’ve been marched off to un­winnable con­flicts for un­con­vinc­ing rea­sons, and there’s lit­tle ev­i­dence to sug­gest that spend­ing $600 bil­lion a year puts us any closer to a co­her­ent strat­egy for mak­ing us safer or de­liv­er­ing sta­bil­ity to other parts of the world.

Iraq is in tur­moil, Afghanistan isn’t much bet­ter off, and one can rea­son­ably ask whether each drone at­tack puts us closer to de­feat­ing ter­ror­ism or fur­ther fromit, each strike draw­ing new and more fa­nat­i­cal re­cruits.

Imag­ine the im­pact we might see if a por­tion of de­fense spend­ing each year were redi­rected to re­de­vel­op­ing this coun­try, with a na­tional work force that re­builds ev­ery­thing we’ve ne­glected for so­many decades.

Imag­ine a coun­try in which a bridge de­te­ri­o­rates andwe re­make it, a pot­hole grows andwe fill it, a side­walk rup­tures andwe repave it.

Imag­ine a coun­try in which the tower above a school comes apart, and it takes three­weeks to fix it in­stead of three years, and count­ing.

Ste­fano Pal­tera

THREE YEARS AGO, the en­trance to John Mar­shall High School in Los Feliz was closed to pro­tect stu­dents from fall­ing de­bris. Re­pairs still aren’t com­plete.

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