The lesson from LA’s decaying infrastructure is that tax rates are too low

The front page of today’s New York Times tells the sad story of Los Angeles’ crumbling infrastructure.  Roadways, sidewalks and water pipes are in a state of decay thanks to several decades of tight municipal budgets. Close to 40% of LA’s roads are graded D or F. The average age of a city water pipe is 58 years. More than 4,000 miles of sidewalk—37% of all pedestrian walkways in the city—are in severe disrepair. A nonprofit transportation research group says that the average LA driver spends $842 a year just on car repairs resulting from the bad roads. How much more does fixing the water damage from broken pipes cost residents each year?

In total, city officials estimate that it will take $8.1 billion to fix the worst roads, repair the sidewalks and replace aging water pipes.  Much of the Times article bemoans this expense in light of the total LA city budget of just $26 billion.

But $8.1 billion should be chump change for LA, a city with a population of about 3.85 million.

Let’s do the math, something that the Times and the city officials and experts quoted in the article fail to do. $8.1 billion breaks down to $2,085.30 per person living in the City of Los Angeles.  If bringing the LA infrastructure up to snuff were financed over 10 years, it would cost less than $210 per person per year, or $420 per year if only households in the top half of the annual income spectrum were obligated to pay for these necessary infrastructure improvements. In the scenario in which the top half of income-earners were assessed the entire bill to fix what’s broke with LA roads, sidewalks and water pipes, the poorest taxpayers paying the assessment would see an additional 7/10ths of a percent in income taxed. But on average, these people would save a minimum of $422 overall, since auto repair costs would plummet.

Now one could make a very strong argument that the roads, water pipes and sidewalks of the City of Los Angeles serve all residents of the county. If we therefore spread the costs over all 10 million residents of Los Angeles County, it would compute to $810 per resident, or $81 per year for 10 years, or $161 per year if only the top half of income earners paid.

If presented with the option of spending $81 of $161 more per year for 10 years and getting safer and faster highways, more efficient water systems and more walkable pedestrian ways (probably not of too much interest to Angelinos, who seem to prefer riding in cars), most county residents would vote “yes.”

But of course, we’re never presented with the costs broken down in such a common sense way. We get the big number and a lot of hand-wringing from politicians.  And in all too many cases such as the Times article, we’re reminded how much of the municipal budget is dedicated to paying the pensions of former city workers. The implication of course is that if we walked away from our commitment to pay pensions—as many on the right would like us to do—we’d have the money to pay for maintaining highway and water pipes.

In Los Angeles, and throughout the country, we are seeing the disastrous end-game of the lower tax philosophy that began strangling the nation some 35 years ago. The big idea behind the brand of conservatism called Reaganism has always been to starve government. Now we know what anorexic government looks like: Pot holes everywhere. Frequent flooding from broken water pipes. More slip and fall accidents. Larger school classes. A gutting of extracurricular activities and enrichment courses such as art and music in public schools. Public colleges that are unaffordable to many of a state’s citizens. Inadequate mass transit.

And what did lower taxes get people? Not much unless you’re wealthy or upper middle class, since those are the people who have received the lion’s share of the income transferred to private individuals through reducing federal, state and local tax rates so many times since 1980.

Also think of these numbers: Trillions of dollars spent to destabilize Iraq through invasion (not to mention thousands of American and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives). $34 billion in grant funding from the Department of Homeland Security to militarize local police department with sophisticated vehicles and weaponry meant for wars, not domestic policing.

Anyone interested in the future of our country should judge all elected officials on their willingness or lack of willingness to raise taxes. Don’t vote for anyone who wants to lower taxes. Actively support anyone who explicitly states they want to raise taxes on the wealthy, near wealthy or businesses. It doesn’t matter that much what the candidate wants to do with the money—we have pressing needs in education, infrastructure development, mass transit, development of alternative energy sources and cleaning the environment. It doesn’t matter, as long as the candidate doesn’t want to use additional tax revenues to pay for more guns or tax breaks to businesses.

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