Priorities Matter in Bombay, Flint and Terre Haute

January 26, 2016

by Craig Ladwig

“New York City’s city council is set to dilute a host of criminal laws including laws against public urination and excessive noise because council members believe too many members of minorities are getting arrested.” — the Jan. 24 Daily Caller

The fictional hometown of the Canadian comedian Red Green is Possum Lake, Ontario. Green has a routine in which he claims that the town was founded by a fellow who was walking around trying to figure out where the smell was coming from.

It brought to mind a visit some years ago with a friend in the U.S. Diplomatic Corps. He was just back from a posting in the consulate in Bombay, India, where he had experienced an olfactory epiphany. The world, he realized, operates on a default setting in which most places . . . well, they stink. That, he reasoned, is because effective water and sewage treatment is not a high priority for the unaccountably powerful living uphill and upwind.

He went on to offer other examples of official indifference, one being a Bombay intersection in which a tragic number of children were being killed in traffic accidents. Nothing could be done, a Bombay aide had told the deputy ambassador, because the neighborhood was accustomed to waiting for higher government authority, in this case to install a simple stop sign.

Fast forward to the present. A journalist friend, wandering the world in retirement, sends a picture. It is of his morning newspaper, the Jan. 15 Kolhapur city edition of the Times of India, spread out on the breakfast table before him. Across the top of the front page is the headline: “Civic Body to Declare City Free of Open Defecation.”

This, clearly, is big news in Kolhapur. It tells the world that it is a city with its priorities straight. That brings us to Flint, Michigan, a city which does not have its priorities straight and as a result has no plumbed potable water. It may take six months and great expense to repair what could have been fixed in a week or avoided altogether.

You don’t have to read all the conflicting reports as to who was at fault over the five decades that it took to destroy the water supply. The undeniable fact is that officialdom, in all its emanations and at every critical moment, did not assign the Flint water system a high enough priority (much as was the case with the New Orleans dikes). Other problems — ideological, cultural, crony-ish, redistributionist and arbitrary — took precedence.

Now here is the bad news: An expert in municipal government, Ryan Cummins, tells us that he doubts there is a city in Indiana that is handling priorities much better or indeed much differently. We just have more money to waste and it will take longer to reach Armageddon.

He expects that Hoosiers, too, will one day experience failure in a critical piece of infrastructure. His hometown, Terre Haute, a city run by public-sector unions, was among those that got a letter last month from the State Board of Accounts warning of financial collapse.

And while we are thinking of it, why has the emergency maintenance of state roads become an emergency, one that requires a new revenue stream? Did a couple of generations of legislators and governors forget that Hoosiers were going to need passable highways?

Let’s call all of that the Possum Lake model of civic governance. Let’s vow to be more like Kolhapur, a place that puts first things first.

Craig Ladwig, editor of The Indiana Policy Review, wrote on foreign Policy for the Kansas City Star and was a foreign-policy aide to Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum.


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