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Pearlstein: What Washington's winter storm says about broken politics

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Steven Pearlstein
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, February 10, 2010; 11:00 AM

Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein was online Wednesday, February 10 at 11:00 a.m. ET to discuss why it's penny wise and pound foolish not to spend more money on snow removal.

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Pearlstein won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 and is co-moderator of the On Leadership discussion site.

Read today's column: What Washington's winter storm says about broken politics.

A transcript follows.

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Wheaton, Md.: what confounds me is that the state of Maryland will use prisoners to clear M&T Bank Stadium before a football game but our sidewalks remain impassable for weeks on end. What about the serving of community service sentences by shoveling sidewalks?

Steven Pearlstein: Got some safety problems with some prisoners, but its not a bad idea.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Comment-HELLO-don't you think we all have computers and can work effectively from home? Why should we risk life and limb to be at our WORKPLACES in the federal govt. when the visibility is zero and the risks are high?

Steven Pearlstein: HELLO -- where do you think I am now? Some people can work from home, but there is a lot of work that can't be done that way.

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Washington, D.C.: Hear, hear. I would much rather pay a very small tax increase and not be stuck at home, begging the city to plow its side streets. Instead car after car has become trapped in the snow, blocking the street, so either we dig it out or it has to be towed. Meanwhile, the requested plow has to skip the now blocked street. And of course once one car is freed, the next one gets trapped. After three days it isn't tragedy or farce, it's just a waste.

Steven Pearlstein: Thanks.

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Rockville, Md.: Sending this in early since I will be shoveling most of the day.

Your "snow-blind" article was great and it got me thinking. For some politicians, anything that is a tax is immediately off limits, but call something "snow insurance" and making it quasi-voluntary is more than acceptable.

In the end, are today's political arguments really based on ideology or are they just semantics? And what does it say if we have constant gridlocks over semantics?

Steven Pearlstein: The problem is that voluntary, in the sense of paying for snow insurance, won't work, since it would be in everyone's interest to free ride -- to let others volunteer to pay and then withhold payment yourself. That's why we have taxes -- we decide collectively to tax ourselves, so that there are no free riders.

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Do the math.: Use a 10% opportunity cost factor and try buying (essentially doubling the number of snow removal vehicles in DC) enough snow vehicles to handle a record snowstorm plus staffing and training enough personnel to drive them.

This storm hit the entire NE coast for all practical purposes...it's unaffordable to tax the populace enough to fix the problem.

Steven Pearlstein: There are obviously some storms that are so big that you can't keep things moving. But there is no reason why you can't clean them up within 36 hours, in my opinion. There are lots of unused vehicles out there that simply need to be lined up as surge capacity and given small plows and harnesses for the event. Snowblowers are not that expensive to buy and store for the event. There is enough ingenuity that people can be marshalled to take care of their own streets, sidewalks, alleys if they just had the right equipment, in conjunction with DPWs working the primary and secondary roads.

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Falls Church, Va.: Mostly right. But it doesn't make sense to insure against a 100-year winter every year. On the other hand, it does make sense to see that it's an El Nino year and budget extra resources accordingly.

Even though VDOT can't create extra trucks, they can pay a little more to make sure that the contractors who would otherwise work for private interests plow the travel lanes first. There's no reason to have clear private parking lots when you can't reach them. That's obviously a failure of the economic allocation more than a failure of resources.

Steven Pearlstein: You, like the previous poster, are using this unusal storm as your reference point. The fact is that an eight inch storm will close schools in Fairfax, Loudoun, Fauquier, Montgomery, Charles counties for two days or more, and may even cause the closure of the federal government. That is unacceptable, and if we don't have the equipment to handle that, then we need to get it. That would also make it quicker to clean up after the bigger ones. We just don't have enough capacity -- it's as simple as that.

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Feds: Steve,

Since the Federal gov't workers have been able to stay home WITH pay and not use leave time, do you think they will be true public servants and work Monday's holiday?

And how much does it cost the taxpayers each day that the government is closed?

Steven Pearlstein: Other than cleanup and overtime costs, it costs taxpayers in that work that would normally have been done isn't getting done, so things are delayed and pushed off into the future. That is an economic cost, but not one that shows up in the budget, so it is neglected.

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Winchester: Does it seem ironic that my neighbor who is a federal worker can stay home with pay to shovel, play, etc., whereas I, the taxpayer, have to fight the snow to work? Is something wrong with this picture?

Steven Pearlstein: What's wrong is that you and your neighbor should both pay a very little more in taxes so that he goes to work and you don't have to fight the snow to such a degree. But neither should go to work until you both shovel your sidewalks so everyone else can get around.

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Vienna, Va.: Great column. You offered some real ideas. One I liked was the distribution of snow blowers to neighborhoods to help people help themselves. We hear today a dichotomy of viewpoints: The government does not do enough, but taxes and government spending should be less. There needs to some thinking in new directions.

Steven Pearlstein: People power!

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New Hampshire (where we plow and tax ourselves to do so): Steven,

I would add to today's column that what you have described is the essential difference between the nation's capital and New York City. It costs a million dollars an inch (so I've heard) to remove the snow in New York, but NYC sucks up the cost and gets on with business. One simple thing that they do in big storms is pay cash to anyone who shows up at a designated spot with a shovel and works for a couple of hours.

What failing to address basic public needs does is breed legitimate contempt for government. That's the problem with the no-taxes-ever folks, and I'd have more respect for them if they acknowledged that.

Steven Pearlstein: I almost put that shows-up-with-cash idea in the column as well, but I didn't want to hear from people complaining that it would find its way into the wrong hands. I actually like the idea, particularly in lower income areas where the money would really be useful.

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McLean, Va.: Where did you get your figures of $25/$2500 annual tax raise to pay for reliable snow removal? Does that include training to use the equipment? I have seen plow jobs that can make things only marginally better because they didn't know how to properly control the plow.

Steven Pearlstein: Yes, you have to train the amateurs. Exactly right. And that would be how some of the extra money should be used. The figures came from quick back of the envelope numbers of the households and businesses with employees in the metro area. I wanted to get to $75 million. I'm sure it's not very precise, but it gives you an order of magnitude idea of what would be required.

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College Park, Md.: It's always puzzled me why people can't make the simple connection between "I want government services" and "I have to pay for them" -- if you want your snow removed, your neighborhood policed, your house fire extinguished, you have to pay taxes so that government can afford to do it. Same principle at the national level -- if you want your wars fought, your air traffic control system to function, your natural disasters coped with (Katrina, anyone?), PAY FOR IT. Taxes aren't inherently evil, but the Republicans have pretty well convinced everyone that we should be able to get services done without paying for it. Any way to educate people out of this mindset?

Steven Pearlstein: That's exactly right. There has developed this magic thinking that somehow what taxes are about is economic growth or job creation, rather than a simple election to purchase certain goods and services collectively rather than individually, which sometimes is necessary or more efficient. This perhaps come from the other idea, not wholely without foundation, that government has become so inefficient and corrupt that there is no connection between the amount of money raised and the quality of services that come out the other end. Fair enough -- but that is fixable. There is nothing more inherently corrupt or inefficient about government than the private sector, and there are plenty of examples where the public sector is actually more efficient and less corrupt.

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Snark!: Which party will claim credit if the snow has been removed by mid July?

Steven Pearlstein: The Tea Party.

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Kensington, Md.: Mr. Pearlstein:

Local governments could handle snow budgets in an easy an non-controversial way by simply budgeting the ten-year rolling average cost in every year. Any unused monies are carried forward.

And yes, I have written extensively to the MoCo council (need I remind you, not a Republican in sight), and I may as well have been describing quantum physics. We elect people who have no understanding at all of finance, accounting, or economics. But isn't that the Republican mantra, that government should be more business-like (or is it just a slogan that is never acted on properly)?

Why has Bloomberg been generally an effective leader in New York? Because he DOES understand these things. And I will also give Fenty some credit for trying to adopt that leadership style.

Steven Pearlstein: Moco is an example of a county that does understand the connection between the amount of taxes and the quality of service -- but almost too much so. The government has been effectively hijacked by public employees who are actually very good and very public spirited, but have decided to pay themselves way too generous benefits, to the point that it now threatens the quality of services that MoCo residents now expect. It is disappointing that the County Executive hasn't stood up to them.

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Herndon, Va.: Wow, are you missing the big picture. We have technology to teach children, pay bills, have meetings. If old fogey managers would stop basing their purpose for being on seeing employees at work (surf the net,talk to friends) rather than on monitoring work being done (like we really need to pay someone to do that) then while slow removal is essential, winter storm blizzards wouldn't have to stop work production at many desk-related jobs.

You're using this technology right now, why can't the federal government, district governments, school systems....expand telecommuting? God....where is Al Gore?

Steven Pearlstein: You can, of course, and should. But not everyone can or will. If your idea were a better one, then why not have everyone work at home all the time, in snow or in sunshine?

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Washington, D.C.: Being functional in heavy snow requires more than just snow plows and shovels. I'm from Wisconsin....I should know. We aren't prepared culturally. Have you not noticed that people here don't know how to drive in snow? Have you not noticed that many locals are uncomfortable venturing out in the snow, even on foot? That won't change with more money.

We have snow days so infrequently, I think we should just enjoy it!

Steven Pearlstein: You are right that a lot of this is cultural, but the first step in changing the culture is to at least make it possible to drive and walk in the snow by making a better and quicker effort to clear it away. Then people will get the experience, lose some of their fears and become more like you and me -- northerners!

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Loss of electrical power may be even more damaging economically than lack of snow removal. What would it cost to bring our local electrical grid up to first world standards? I'm probably not the only person who would pay whatever that would cost.

Steven Pearlstein: It should be in your electric rate base.

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Alexandria, Va.: I'd love to see better snow removal. But do we want VDOT, DDOT, MDOT spending the money needed to prepare for the worst winter in a lot of years?

That would be a great expense in capital equipment as well as maintenance and storage for snow removal equipment that would be underused in nearly every year.

Steven Pearlstein: First, as I said, you have to remember that a 10-inch snowstorm is also crippling in a lot of places, so this isn't just the case of a 100-year storm. And in the case of a 100-year storm, you should be able to clean up in 2 days, not five. There's a big difference there.

Second, there are lots of ways to arrange for "surge capacity" that don't involve having three times as many DPW trucks and permanent employees. There are lots of trucks around that can be put to dual use, people who can be trained to drive them, snowblowers, volunteer shovelers, etc. It just needs to be better organized and funded.

And one more thing --a pet peeve: It is fine if teachers want to or need to live in rural areas far away from where they work. But if they do, they ought to have an affirmative obligation to have a four-wheel drive vehicle, or to have people near school who are willing to let them stay the night during snow emergencies, or have friends who can drive them to public transportation.

On that point, it is really important that Metro have more capacity to deal with snow. As long as the subways and buses and commuter rails are paralyzed, they are the weak link in the chain. That is just unacceptable.

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Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Pearlstein,

Your logic convinced me. You need to face the fact, however, that most Republican's have now taken an oath to oppose all tax increases, no matter what. The anti-tax movement has adopted strong-arm tactics previously pioneered by the National Rifle Association, with great effect on wavering pols.

I wouldn't expect your impeccable logic to have any effect in the face of that kind of stony opposition.

Steven Pearlstein: I think the thing to do is to get Northern Virginia to seceed from the Commonwealth, in that great Dixie tradition. Then they can run down the government and shoot themselves all they want.

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sidewalks: It is time to stop penalizing people unlucky enough to have a sidewalk in front of their house. It is not their property. (If so they could set up a toll and charge people use to defray snow removal cost) One person with a snow blower could do a whole block in the time it takes one person to shovel in front of a house. There are no snow shovels to be found even if some wanted to remove snow. The population is aging so snow removal is more of a burden. It is really time for the government to clear sidewalks and bus stops. I would be willing to pay more. Right now I live in an apartment complex that clears all the sidewalk so this is not my burden. I did clear sidewalks when I had a house. It is just not fair for some to be responsible for what we all use. Business and apartments should still do their own snow removal. It is part of doing business.

Steven Pearlstein: This I don't agree with. Obviously old people shouldn't be shoveling sidewalks, but they have young neighbors who ought to pitch in. We've lost the idea that we are all responsible for each other, and that during a crisis, we all pitch in and work together. To sit back and wait for government to do it is both the wrong attitude and unnnecessarily expensive in terms of taxes.

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Ithaca, N.Y.: I wonder how many anti-tax/Tea Party people are complaining about the road conditions (btw, we are getting about 8 inches of snow up this way and the plow has been by my street 2 times today already and schools are open).

Until a natural disaster or personal disaster (like losing your job or health insurance) happens to you, it's easy to say "keep the government off my back".

Steven Pearlstein: I wonder as well.

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Washington, D.C.: Nice column -- but one thing was omitted from your calculations. Even if every road and sidewalk were shoveled down to the pavement, if the Metro isn't running, thousands of people will not be able to get to work. Metro would have to make whatever fix is necessary so that their trains can run in a heavy snowfall. I assume this would cost many millions of dollars.

Steven Pearlstein: I don't know what it would cost to keep Metro running, given the basic design of the system, but I'm sure there is a way not to let a 12-inch snowstorm bring the system to a complete halt. That is not acceptable.

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Kensington, Md.: Steve, it's as if you've been plagiarizing what I've been telling people for the past zillion years. That message deserves to be hammered onto the forehead of every politician in the region. I can add nothing to what you wrote, other than to say that there are a lot of us out here who read your column and said "IT'S ABOUT TIME THAT SOMEBODY SAID THIS."

And now pardon me, I have to go out and shovel my driveway for the 3rd time since I woke up. (It's now 9:23) It's a lot easier if you don't have to do it all at once, and at least this way I'll be out of my house if a tree should fall on it.....

Steven Pearlstein: I also am a believer in shoveling frequently, athough the wind out there earlier scared me away. After this chat, I'll brave it again.

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Steven Pearlstein: sorry, pushed wrong key. Why exactly were schools closed last Friday, before the big storm, along with having a volutary federal work day? And why were school systems already cancelling classes for the rest of the week yesterday evening? The reason is that there is not enough capacity to deal with snow at almost any level. We need to stop budgeting for this as if we live in Florida. It snows here rather predictably, and in some cases rather seriously.

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Philadelphia: Steve: This is a great idea for the common good. In our area, the counties draft local landscapers. They need the work in the winter, so they snap a plow blade onto the front of their trucks. No long-term salary or benefits.

For those who think it is simple to work at home (like us), don't forget everyone is hitting the internet simultaneously, stressing the ISPs.

There are lot of folks who need to get to work like hospital/prison/nursing home staff. You can't cook and serve Grandma's meals from home.

Steven Pearlstein: Thanks.

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Arlington, Va.: Steven,

I agreed with most of your article, but snow removal would not top the list of things I would like government to do better. One major area would be traffic. I lose on average about 4 hours per week to traffic and would gladly pay to avoid that time and stress. While building more roads could be part of the long term solution, the use of congestion pricing could fix the traffic problem now. Since traffic slows way down when the roads are overcrowded, with congestion pricing we could make much better use of the roads we have and move more traffic in less time. The revenue generated could also be used to make the roads safer and to clear out accidents more quickly.

I think the problem is that the Republicans have succeeded in convincing people that taxes merely serve as a negative incentive to work by reducing the benefit that someone gets from their work. The flip side of that argument is that in most cases the government sets the conditions that allow us to be successful and make a good income in the first place. Congestion pricing has the added benefit that the people paying the fee get the benefit, where in many cases the connection between the tax and the benefit is more difficult to see.

Thanks.

Steven Pearlstein: Perhaps the strategy is to begin slashing budgets for the few things Republicans actually care about, like prisons and cops, and use the same rhetoric they use to fight spending everywhere else. It would be irresponsible, but fun.

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It is fine if teachers want to or need to live in rural areas far away from where they work.: Most teachers I know would love to live near their schools, but can't afford it. If we would pay teachers like other professionals, this problem (and many others) would be ameliorated.

Steven Pearlstein: Sorry, that deoesn't cut it with me. We've been increasing teacher pay rather steadily, because it was too low. But that's no excuse for not making the necessary preparations to do your job. Teachers have cars, when I last checked. Buy the right kind next time, or make other arrangements. Lots of other workers do that, including many who are paid less than teachers.

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Snowed in in NYC: Steve: Isn't the refusal to allocate more money to snow removal another manifestation of the public's distaste for all of the inane union work rules that prevent things from getting done in a reasonable time and cost? I'm all for safe workplaces, equipment, yada yada yada...but if snow removal must be done at certain hours by certain people with certain seniority and certain trucks and snow must be used...well I'd rather not pay taxes and stay home. I'll gladly pay more if the agenda isn't hijacked by special interests.

Steven Pearlstein: Actually, I don't think that is a big problem in this case.

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Ashburn, Va.: Loved your column today. Especially liked your idea of involving the stranded public sector. Most people like to help themselves but lack the equipment to do so. It seems cost effective to me for the various local governments to coordinate neighborhood efforts to dig themselves out. Also, I believe private resources should be somehow enlisted to plow roads before clearing parking lots, etc. Lots of good ideas generated here. Hope our city/county officials are listening!

Steven Pearlstein: You can be sure that they aren't listening, or if they are, have got their usual list of excuses why they can't do any better. I'm afraid I've had these conversations many times before in the last 20 years, and they always end the same.

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A modest proposal: What ever happened to children shoveling walks (for free for their families, for modest pay for neighbors)?

Why don't neighbors on each block get together and shovel out their streets, instead of waiting for Big Brother to do it? Think of all the tax money that could be saved, and the streets would be cleared of snow a lot sooner!

Steven Pearlstein: Right.

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Shepherdstown, W.V.: I like your idea of providing snowplow attachments and snowblowers to neighborhoods (with appropriate training, of course). Don't Maryland and Virginia have a similar program to provide vans for people who agree to drive carpools?

The big question might be insurance - the contractor we use in our subdivision has insurance to cover any accidental damage he might do to a resident's property.

Steven Pearlstein: The liability excuse is overstated. You can surely change the law to create some protections for good samaritans. And you can buy insurance fairly cheaply for this. The liability excuse is the first refuge of scoundrels -- it's what the superintendents always say when they try to justify closing schools at the first hint that a snowflake may be on the way. It's a real cop out.

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Alexandria, Va.: Always a great read since you invariably speak truth to power. My question is this: why is the concept of a "public good", which is either an answer to negative externalities that individual behaviors create or a means to achieve positive externalities that individual behaviors cannot create, is so poorly understood, especially by the rabid anti-government types. We are in the Great Recession precisely because individual behaviors created adverse collective outcomes. What can be done to fix this ignorance?

Steven Pearlstein: Everyone should be required to take a good economics course before getting out of high school, and again in college. And whoever writes the best textbook should make as much money as the best hedge fund manager.

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Washington, no state: I agree with the economics in your column this morning, but isn't there also a non-economic component? The current "system" allows the elites to decide the conditions make it burdensome for them to go to work, so by mutual consent they arrange to be paid to stay home. Meanwhile, lower class workers somehow miraculously figure out how to get to their jobs. If highly-educated professionals had to go to work in somewhat challenging circumstances, maybe then there would be more political will for keeping things running.

Steven Pearlstein: Well, there is a class element to it, you are right. But in the Washington area, there are many more salaried white collar workers, in government and in the private sector, and lots less hourly workers. So maybe that explains it.

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Fairfax, Va.: I totally agree with everything your article states and would gladly pay more taxes to prevent this ridiculous paralysis. I have already contacted my Governor McDonnell and asked him where the leadership is that I voted for!!! It seems so easy when you put it in writing...why can't we fix this broken political garbage? Also, why isn't it a law that you must clear your sidewalk in Fairfax County? I'm over 60 and I shoveled mine!!! It should be a civic duty unless you are ill or disabled!

Steven Pearlstein: I'd love to see what Bob McDonnell has to say, but I can assure you he would never ever dare to support the idea of a snow tax.

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Re: Winchester and federal government worker: Just want to clarify something in regards to Winchester's comment about the federal worker (and I am NOT a federal worker):

Federal workers PAY TAXES TOO!

People tend to forget that. And a lot of private sector workers are off with pay, too -- the conditions are just too dangerous out there.

And by the way -- I agree that if we all paid a little more taxes for snow removal, it would go a long way.

Steven Pearlstein: Thanks.

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Silver Spring, Md.: The closure of the Federal government for a total of four days now clearly indicates the need of the Feds to step up to helping the metro area and especially Metro. But I know what will happen -- after the melt the chorus will be, "This was an unusual situation that won't happen again." and nothing will happen.

Steven Pearlstein: Your prediction is correct as far as Metro is concerned Re: the feds, I'd say the federal government already provides the area with lots of support to reflect the fact that it needs good public services for the government to function. As a result, we have one of the richest communities in the country, and one that has lots of low-cost amenities and is a lovely place to live. I think it's us who need to step up to the plate here, in a rather modest way, and take the same responsibility that people in places like New Hampshire and Wisconsin do.

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DC: I think you are right that the storm response does provide an apt metaphor for our broken politics. However, your stroking of Fenty was a bridge too far for me. The reason Fenty sent city employees to work was because of political opportunism and had nothing to do with anything other than trying to prematurely pat himself on the back for a job that was undone. If you ask me, from watching this storm response, the biggest broken thing with our politics right now is that there is a bit too much self-congratulation.

Steven Pearlstein: Sorry, but that's not fair. Both Fenty and Rhee (and Mayor Williams before them) have done a good job in raising the bar on public services and what people should expect. There may be some cynical motives as well, but this has been a consistent theme and it has made a difference, as shown in recent polls, which show that people are a lot happier with their city services than they are with Fenty himself.

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Bowie, Md.: My only question is this....if this is the most snow we have had during winter in 100 years, then why spend more money on buying expensive snow removal equipment that Maryland and the localities won't use every year? I find that to be short-sighted. If we have to deal with a few snow related problems every now and then, then we should just deal with them as they come. We are not New England, upstate NY or anyplace around the Great Lakes. It doesn't make sense to me for any state in the Mid-Atantic region to spend as heavily on snow removal equipment as our neighbors to the north do.

Steven Pearlstein: Again, there is a lot of dual use equipment, public and private, that could be marshalled for these infrequent events. You are setting up a straw man.

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Snowmageddon: It doesn't really surprise me that it's taking time to dig the roads out of the worst snow in decades. But it does surprise me a lot that restoring a fully operating Metro system isn't among the highest regional priorities. Closing the above-ground stations means that many thousands of people have no way to get to work, even if they want to or are expected to, or to go about other business that might be urgent. Businesses near those stations that might have been willing to open have to remain closed for lack of staff and customers. And without subway or buses, those eager volunteers you dream of would have no way to get somewhere to do something useful. It would have meant a lot to the region, practically and symbolically, if we could have relied on Metro when everything else was frozen. That might have been a good use for tax money.

Steven Pearlstein: Agreed.

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Springfield, Va.: You have put your finger on a very serious problem in our country. It's gone beyond political gridlock however, but a breakdown in the social contract--the idea that we each give up a certain amount of freedom for the greater good & ultimately the benefit of all of us. That's the foundation of our society. In this case we pay taxes to accomplish tasks that cannot be performed individually, like clearing roads. Taxes are the dues we pay for living in a civilized society.

The reflexive anti-tax movement threatens that concept. When people refuse to pay a small amount extra for snow removal or infrastructure repairs, they get snow-filled roads and falling bridges. They want to be members of the country club for free.

How can we stop this pernicious idea?

Steven Pearlstein: Write columns and vote for people who understand the social compact. Also push ahead with a Virginia secession plan.

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Stuck in the Snow: Dear Steve,

Amen to your column today. I have been at home since the weekend, unable to get out of my street, even though it has been plowed ... I'm defeated by a hill I can't get traction to go up, and the walk to the Metro yesterday defeated me ... 10 feet of snow on the sidewalk I have to use to get there ... I refuse to walk in the street and risk my neck.

The shortsightedness is not restricted to government and the tax-averse electorate. My business could easily operate if the company were willing to allow more telecommuting -- we ought to have an emergency plan that facilitates working from home. It's an industry that's eminently suitable to such arrangements, but the bosses are resistant. As it stands, my coworkers and I will be forced to use limited vacation time to cover the time we've lost.

Steven Pearlstein: I feel your pain.

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Falls Church, VA: "You, like the previous poster, are using this unusual storm as your reference point."

And you are using it as the hook for your column. Can't have it both ways.

There's no reason for me to have a snowblower, heat tape on my gutters, and a generator just because I might need them once every few years. Likewise, it doesn't make sense for municipalities to have overcapacity 4 out of every 5 years just in case there is a big storm.

Steven Pearlstein: You probably don't have fire insurance either, since the chance of your having a fire is 1 in 100.

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Baltimore, Md.: Your column made my trip to the curb to retrieve the paper worthwhile. Why don't incumbents like Gov. O'Malley seize the moment? How often does a leader get a chance thrown in his lap to address his constituents and announce that he is demanding answers(and action)from his dept. heads? He (and others like him) is opening the door for challengers like Ehrlich.

Steven Pearlstein: They're gutless, that's why.

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Washington, D.C.: OPM says it costs $100M for each day the US government is closed in the area. How about giving local jurisdiction $300M this year for the days we've been closed to buy more snow removal equipment? It might pay for itself in a year or two at this rate.

Steven Pearlstein: If that is true (I wasn't aware of that number), then it would certainly be worth them spending $50 M a year to significantly reduce the chance of a closure.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Comment-HELLO-don't you think we all have computers and can work effectively from home?: Wow. Has there ever been a more self-centered comment posted?

Steven Pearlstein: Hmmm.

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Burke, Va.: Steven, your column was dead on target. We are sacrificing so many opportunities to build better communities by our insistence on saying "no" to any proposed improvements. The sooner we get our heads out of the sand, the sooner we can begin to realize the potential of this region.

Steven Pearlstein: Thanks for that, and for a good discussion today. "See" you all next week.

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Cleveland Park: What is truly upsetting is the lack of creative thinking on the part of Mayor Fenty to try and address the snow removal problem. Walking around downtown this week I saw dozens of snow covered pieces of construction equipment parked on idle construction lots. Whay can't all that equipment be hired on an emergency basis to clean the streets? It's already perfectly positioned in the downtown core and would allow city plows to concentrate on the residential areas. I know the workers would probably love the extra income given the constuction downturn. Mayor Fenty needs to increase his visability and start thinking outside the box.

Steven Pearlstein: One last comment.

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