Discounting the Future

            National Public Radio offered a story this week following up on the ferocious tornado that devastated Moore, Oklahoma in May that resulted in the deaths of seven students and 18 other residents and the destruction of two elementary schools and 1,000 homes. The report illustrated three larger characteristics of today’s American politics, while not specifically highlighting them. I address those traits below.

            The explicit goal of the news story was to investigate how the school system and state were faring in developing tornado-proof spaces for students to prevent tragedies of the sort that occurred in Moore in the future. Moore, with its 23,000 school-aged youths, like the remainder of Oklahoma, lies squarely within the multi-state area known as “Tornado-alley” and so is annually susceptible to such weather events. The upshot of the report was that the state has done little since the twister struck and is not prepared to take an active role in facilitating the development of storm shelters in schools (there is no plan to create them), because there is no political will to undertake the effort to do so. In a comment that perhaps inadvertently underscored this point, the state’s gubernatorial spokesman Alex Weintz said:

We have well over a thousand school buildings in the state of Oklahoma. And we think it would cost probably at least $2 billion to build new storm shelters or safe rooms in each one of those, and that’s a little under a third of the state’s entire budget for a year. It’s not realistic to think that the state would be able to pay for a tornado shelter in each school.

            One need not quibble with Weintz’s cost estimate or his portrayal of the Oklahoma budget to note that the state does not need to build all such facilities in one year. It seems reasonable to suppose that Oklahoma could work with its localities to develop a multi-year plan for their completion, providing tornado shelters for those schools most at risk first and addressing others in order of perceived relative jeopardy. Weintz also did not mention the fact that the federal government has assisted the state and localities in building such spaces, which are expensive, in the past by defraying a significant portion of their cost and would do so in the future. So the argument Weintz offered had little to do either with the fiscal feasibility of Oklahoma undertaking such an initiative, difficult or not, or with assessing the relative risk that might demand it. Instead, his comments were apparently calculated to suggest it was beyond the pale. As the reporter noted at the story’s close, “whether Oklahoma’s (state) leaders share (the local Moore school administrator’s passion for securing shelters) is not so clear.”

            Meanwhile, Moore school officials interviewed for the story indicated that their goal was indeed to provide just such safe areas for their schools. To do so, they have launched a campaign to raise the funds necessary not only from local government, but also from private citizens and organizations ($2 million in private funds have been raised to date) in order to provide what they take to be a critical public service. In short, education and civic leaders are seeking to ensure what the state government is thus far uninterested in offering by raising a significant portion of the funds needed from private sources. There is no guarantee Moore’s school officials will succeed.

            As I noted, this story illustrates three features of today’s politics. First, Oklahoma’s elected leaders are willing to risk more children’s deaths as a result of tornadoes by not providing storm shelters in schools because that effort would require significant resources in the near term. That is, they are willing to impose future risks and costs so as to minimize claims on today’s taxpayers, even when those dangers, however infrequent, are potentially severe. A similar political calculation has created a massive infrastructure crisis in this country.

            Second and related, this electoral calculus is oriented only to the short run. State (and national) leaders are aware of the costs of allowing infrastructure to deteriorate, just as they are aware of the risks of not protecting school children against potential future natural disasters. But in both cases, the possibility of calamity is unpredictable and will only occur in the future and so may be ignored or foisted off to future leaders and residents in favor of the specific claims of the moment. From the point-of-view of today’s state officials, the results of their attitude can possibly be cataclysmic, but the timing of disasters is not certain and so their risk may be borne without undue political cost. The long-term costs of broken highways or bridges will be very large indeed, as will additional preventable children’s deaths in another Moore-like tragedy, but neither is obvious now, while the costs of addressing each presently looms large.

            Finally, the governor and state leaders have created a scenario in which their refusal to help to fund a public good adequately is resulting in its partial privatization. One may debate whether services should be provided, but that is not now occurring among Oklahoma officials; instead, financing for shelters has simply been declared fiscally untenable. The result is a locally sponsored initiative that is redefining a public good, at least partly, as a privately financed commodity, whether or not the effort succeeds. The Moore case reveals that when elected federal or state officials refuse (de facto or more obviously) to accept responsibility for a service or they elect to redefine that good as no longer a public one, it may leave local leaders no option but to privatize it to have any chance of providing it. Notably, any possible change in this scenario rests squarely with the need for an attentive and informed public with a willingness to bear some costs on behalf of future generations. Oklahoma’s state leaders apparently perceive no such pressures from their constituency, but a clear evocation of their emergence could change the current situation quickly and markedly.