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Snow-blind: What Washington's winter storm says about broken politics

In Myersville, Md., Fred Ramge mans a snow blower Saturday. Local governments could harness such energy after storms, if they chose to.
In Myersville, Md., Fred Ramge mans a snow blower Saturday. Local governments could harness such energy after storms, if they chose to. (Ricky Carioti/washington Post)
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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Here's a little thought experiment:

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You're sitting at home for the third straight day, unable to get to work because of the snow. Your kids are on the fourth day of a snow vacation that is likely to last through the end of the week. How much would you have been willing to pay to guarantee that the streets and sidewalks were clear and things could have run pretty much as normal? $10? $25? $50?

Or imagine that you own a business with 50 employees that is closed for three days because of the snow, but you still have to pay $30,000 in salaries for work they didn't do. What would you have been willing to pay to have things running normally this week? $1,000? $2,500? $5,000?

My guess is that, given the benefit of hindsight and several days of house arrest, "snow insurance" sounds tempting.

Now imagine that the mayor of the District and the governors of Maryland and Virginia got together and declared that in our interdependent 21st-century regional economy, there is no reason less than a foot of snow should be allowed to disrupt work and school, and no reason anything more than a foot shouldn't be cleaned up within 36 hours. To pay for the extra manpower and equipment, the politicians proposed raising taxes and fees by an average of $25 per household each year, and $2,500 for the average business.

Although the politicians' offer would be the effective equivalent of "snow insurance," I can assure you that the reaction to it would be quite different. Republicans would immediate call it "the biggest tax increase in history" and declare unequivocally that it would send the economy into a tailspin while radically expanding the government. Chambers of commerce would issue news releases warning that the tax would particularly hurt small-business owners, who as we all know create every new job and would now be forced to cut their payrolls or close their doors. Virginia's House of Delegates would move immediately to kill the proposal, thereby dooming consideration by all the other jurisdictions.

It is a measure of the dysfunction of our political system that we can no longer rationally debate whether it is penny-wise and pound-foolish not to spend a little more to try to keep the Capital of the Free World from grinding to a halt every time a snowflake descends from the heavens.

I realize there are lots of problems that cannot be solved just by throwing money at them, but snow removal is not one of them. We have the know-how, we have the technology and we have the money and economic self-interest to do it right. What we don't seem to have is the leadership or political will.

Stephen Fuller, the oft-quoted regional economist at George Mason University, had it wrong when he told The Washington Post this week that there is little ultimate economic cost when everyone misses a week of work or school unnecessarily. Yes, it is true that many retail stores make up the lost sales before and after a storm, but that represents only a small portion of the region's output. There are many people who get paid by the hour who will not be able to make up for lost work. And there are many more people who continue to be paid for work that is never done, which never quite gets factored into the models that purport to measure economic output.

Let's do a little back-ofthe-envelope calculation. Our regional output is about $400 billion per year. Let's say, conservatively, that in an average year, we lose two working days to inadequate snow removal. Allowing for the fact that some people actually work on those days, let's put lost output at $4 billion (two days at $2 billion). Let's assume that with lost output, there is forgone household income and business profits of $2 billion. And let's further assume that 5 percent of that forgone income and profit-- $100 million -- would have made its way to state and local governments and agencies in taxes, tolls and fees.

Given that, wouldn't it make sense to spend an additional $50 million to $75 million -- on top of the roughly $100 million we already spend on snow removal -- to avoid those two lost days? Having that extra capacity would not only pay for itself, but also have the salutary effect of improving the region's economic climate, boosting the educational achievement of students and enhancing the productivity of all salaried workers, including those in the federal government.

Nor would it necessarily take $75 million. There are more effective ways to expand snow-removal capacity than simply hiring more drivers and buying more trucks, particularly if governments are open to more citizen involvement. Local governments could provide neighborhood groups with snow blowers that trained residents could use to clear sidewalks, alleys and parked cars, or small plows that volunteers could attach to their trucks to remove snow from side streets and school parking lots. More sophisticated computer systems could allow public works managers to make better use of GPS, satellite images, the Internet and social networks to get help to where it is most needed and squeeze greater productivity from existing equipment. And instead of waiting a week for government employees or contractors to dig out school buses, counties could get it done in a day by putting out a call for volunteers to homebound parents and students.

Our snow blindness is a metaphor for the tyranny of diminished expectations that has taken hold in American politics and government. Anyone who tells you this is the way it has to be is either a liar or a coward, or suffers from a stunning lack of imagination. D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee may have been foolishly optimistic in thinking they could get the District in shape to open for business earlier this week. But their determination to set higher standards for public services is a refreshing change from the elaborately rationalized defeatism of other local officials.

Pearlstein will host a Web chat, from home, at 11 a.m. Wednesday at washingtonpost.com.



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