Thursday, February 18, 2021

Thought on Deferred Maintenance

As with the past few posts, this was first shared on Facebook.


Can we talk for a minute? Of course, I can only speak for myself.


Let’s talk about Texas.


No? Not talk about Texas? Okay, let’s talk about Kansas City, where we used to live.


We moved to Kansas City in 1994. That was a year after one of the worst floods in the city’s history. There were signs everywhere of the water damage. In the Country Club Plaza, an historic and high value shopping district, stores still showed where the Brush Creek had risen to more than three feet in first floor rooms, having completely flooded the basements below.


There were several matters that contributed to the floods, and especially to the Plaza area and also to working class residential neighborhoods downstream. One that was recognized by the time we arrived was that the storm drainage system and the sanitary sewer system were linked. When these were installed in the 1920’s and ‘30’s the idea was that if there were unusually heavy rains the sanitary system would be able to absorb some of the excess.


It’s hard to deny that for decades that had worked, or at least worked well enough. However, after the 1993 floods it was recognized that some important things had changed. Our standards about treating the stuff in our sanitary sewers had changed. Our water quality concerns about our storm runoff and other waters had changed. Most important, there were now tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people living in the Brush Creek drainage, many of them miles upstream of the Country Club Plaza, and quite a number of them across the state line in Kansas. All those roads, driveways, homes, and people were adding to the storm runoff and to the sewage that went into the system. The problem was similar all over Kansas City, although it was especially visible in the Plaza district and downstream.


So, when we moved to Kansas City, the City Council was thinking about how to address the issue. The concern, and for a majority the stopping point, was that it would require an investment of $40 million. (I may be a bit off, but that’s my memory.) So, it was talked about and talked about, and a few small tweaks were accomplished, but the systemic problem was never addressed.


Of course, as it was talked about, you could see one consequence of delay, and I bet you can guess what it was. The cost kept going up. They were still talking about it when we left Kansas City, and over those almost 25 years the cost had grown to $4 billion - 100 times the initial requirement, more or less. Now, I’m sure about the last figure; but even if I’m really wrong about the first figure and it was $400 million, that’s still 10 times the cost. And while the tweaks had helped the Country Club Plaza, there had still been bad storms and significant flooding in the Brush Creek drainage above and below. People still died and people still lost a lot of money to flood damage.


So, there’s a very clear monetary example of the real cost of deferred maintenance - of putting off hard and expensive stuff until “better times.” Too often, though, it doesn’t really seem to be about “better times.” It seems to be about leaders who don’t want responsibility for the hard decisions, especially when those decisions include taxing citizens.


I know, I know: perhaps you thought I was just going to stop with “spending money.” For good and ill, though, the money that governments have to do the jobs we want of them comes from taxes. Now, my wife will tell you that I’ve never seen a tax I didn’t like, which isn’t true; but do understand that paying taxes is one of the responsibilities of having “government... by the people,” alongside voting. Sometimes we find other terms like “user fees” to avoid calling them taxes; or tools like municipal bonds to put off, perhaps for decades, paying the taxes (but, how do you think those bonds are paid off when they become due?) And, yes, we might disagree on how broad the scope should be of what we want government to do. I will tell you I’m really glad when my town can plow my street when the snow is deep. I’m glad my water district has laid mains well below the freeze line and has the resources to respond quickly to a break.


Many, many of us make decisions to tend to matters and avoid deferred maintenance. We keep our cars serviced, and we keep our houses in repair, and we see doctors and dentists regularly. We do those things because we know problems caught early are cheaper than crises caught too late; and that problems prevented are cheaper still. So, why shouldn’t we not only support but expect our leaders to address problems early, including the expectation that we’ll be paying for them?


Of course, I can only speak for myself.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

How About Unity of Purpose Before Unity of Opinion?

 This was posted first on Facebook and has been copied here.

Can we talk? Of course, I can only speak for myself.

I’m not anxious about conservatives. I’m not one, or at least not one in ways that would be acknowledged by most folks who call themselves “conservative” these days. But, the thought that someone presents as conservative doesn’t automatically put me off.


That takes me back to a conversation I had some years ago. I was at perhaps my first clergy conference in the Diocese of West Missouri. Being Episcopalians, there was social time after the evening activities. Being Episcopalians, there was beer. And, being clergy (pretty much of any tradition) there was a lot of conversation.


I found myself in conversation with a colleague from a congregation down around Springfield. Folks who know Missouri will know that the general environment around Springfield is notable more conservative than that in Kansas City. He was also more conservative than I. We have a long and thoughtful discussion about poverty and how to address it. We didn’t come to a conclusion (who could imagine we’d have enough time to talk that out in one evening!), but I do remember that we came to important agreement. We agreed that poverty in American society was a real problem; that it caused real suffering; and that it was worthwhile to work on ways to address it. 


And once we’d agreed on that, we had plenty of reasons to keep talking, and even to find common ground. He was definitely more conservative than I, but he did realize that there were some problems that should be addressed through government because only government involves, and also is accountable to, all of us. I was more progressive than he but I agreed that we needed to have some expectations and requirements of folks who were being helped. Sure, we didn’t come to a final conclusion, but we definitely found grounds on which we could work together.


As I still think about it, I still feel the most important thing about that conversation was that we agreed that there was a real problem and real value in addressing it. We have a number of problems like that. We’ve been talking about infrastructure problems for years. and roads and bridges have continued to age. We’ve seen all too clearly in the pandemic that the gaps of economic poverty vs stability, and of urban vs suburban vs rural make for tremendous issues in health care. It seems to me there is a lot we might do if we can first agree there is a problem that is worth fixing, so that we can then put our collective minds to how.


These days “unity” seems to be the theme of the day. A lot of folks want it, but some at different ends of the spectrum seem committed to the idea that “unity” can come only when it means “everybody comes around to my way of thinking.” To me that sounds like a pretty cerebral, pretty academic sense of “unity.” Maybe we would get more done if we started finding our unity in agreeing on the problem to be solved and in committing our efforts to solving it. To me that seems a pretty conservative idea, really, even coming from this progressive.


Of course, I can only speak for myself.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Leadership and Focusing on Facts

This was posted first to Facebook and has been copied here.

 Can we talk? Of course, I can only speak for myself.

So, you know I’m a preacher, right? When I was in seminary, we talked about a big change in how we do things (in Western culture) that took place in the 13th Century. With the teachings of Albertus Magnus and of Thomas Aquinas, European culture made the change from seeing the world based on the teachings of Plato to seeing the world based on the teachings of Aristotle. Without getting too deep in the weeds (but, please do invite me! I love the weeds!), the difference was about what you could know and how you could know it (and what follows is a clearly Christian way of using these categories). For followers of Plato, the truest truth was in the mind of God, and if you thought long and hard enough you could intuit the truth as God saw it, or as close as you could get. For Aristotle, you couldn’t know God’s mind directly but you could see what God had done in the world; and by carefully observing you could see that and from that deduce the truest truth, or as close as you could get.


My professor of Christian Thought and Systematic Theology (same professor, different classes) had a clear understanding of why Aristotle’s position quickly became dominant in Europe: “it built a better cannon.” It was by observing, trying, and adjusting that you improved useful and effective things were, and in those days better siege weapons were considered really important. Sure, cannon would not come to western Europe until the 14th Century, but in those days that was “quickly.” Still, they were clear that observing, trying, adjusting, and observing facts was more effective than simply imagining in making things work better.


We’ve come a long way with those principles, even if we don’t always use those terms. One shorthand we have for that approach is the scientific method. In keeping with our European cultural heritage, we’ve used it to make better bombs. We’ve also used it to make better medicines. The scientific method was critical with getting us to new vaccines for coronavirus that are going to help bring us out of this pandemic (along with mask wearing and social distancing, also supported by scientific method). 


We’ve used them in our industries. Whether we’ve heard of it as performance improvement or continuous quality improvement (CQI) or total quality management (TMQ), we’ve seen how it reformed the Japanese auto industry and then the American auto industry, and many other industries besides. They stopped just imagining what might work and started finding and focusing on facts of how things worked, and used those facts to make things work better.


With all that demonstration of the value of using facts for decisions, perhaps we should expect the same things of our leaders.  If our leaders focus on facts rather than simply on theories and principles, they should be able to offer better programs, better government. If we focus on facts rather than simply principles, or worse, rumors, we should be able to select better leaders who will then offer better programs, better government. Principles have a place because they can help us think about how to use facts. I am after all a Christian and that certainly informs how I might want to respond to the facts in front of me. But I can best apply my principles if I start with observing and testing facts.


Of course, I can only speak for myself.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Accountability, Unity, and Voting

This was posted first on my Facebook stream and has been copied here. 


Can we talk? Of course, I can only speak for myself.

I am thinking about unity and accountability. Actually, I’m thinking at the moment about unity and accountability and voting.


In most of these United States, at some points convicted felons receive again the right to vote. We heard a lot about that this past year in light of changes (before 2020) in Florida. Felons there could regain the right to vote, but only after completion of sentence, completion of any probation, and payment of any outstanding restitution and fees. Now, some think the requirements are too great, and that the system can be set up to make it practically impossible even it it’s theoretically possible. What I think we can agree on, though, is that this is unity that is possible, but only after accountability.


Unity after accountability is really pervasive in our culture. Kid misbehaves? Send said kid to bedroom or sit said kid in the corner, and only after that accountability can that child return to the community, to friends, to chosen activities. I was (rarely but occasionally) spanked as a child; and once I had endured that I was returned to my own (hopefully) better choices and behavior.


It makes sense, too, in so much that has shaped our culture. Since I’m a preacher, I can think particularly of our religious texts. All those sacrificial laws in the Hebrew Scriptures were about unity after accountability. I’m among those who has preached about atonement as “at-one-ment,” to emphasize that it was through accountability, and not without it, that one could return to right status in the community. Jesus in Matthew 18 gives a format for reconciliation when one member of the congregation sins against another. In that format, reconciliation requires accountability, even if there’s no punishment per se. The sinner has to own the sin - to be accountable - to be reconciled.


So, I think many of us would agree that there can be unity, but there has to be accountability first. Felons in Florida, and in most other states, can regain the right to vote after sentence is completed - accountability and then unity.


Which brings us to last Wednesday. After last Wednesday’s assault on elected leaders and a completed election, there are some who want to talk about unity. Well and good; and in our tradition, that should also require accountability. And if unity after accountability should apply to the drug user and also to the drug dealer, it should apply to the ones who stormed the Capital and also to any person whose rhetoric helped them think that was an acceptable thing to do. 


Of course, I can only speak for myself.