David Cox: A parable for our times?

Column by David Cox

Three folks rowed out onto a big lake in a small boat. Once in the middle, they realized their boat leaked. Water began pouring in from a hole in the hull.

The woman who spotted the leak realized that they could plug the leak and make it back to shore fairly easily, if they had a piece of wood to shape a plug, and a knife to do the shaping. Lo and behold, one of her companions pulled out a Swiss army knife with about 39 contraptions including a blade suitable for whittling. Her other companion rummaged around his pocket and produced a long rectangle of teakwood he’d attached to his keychain.

As the water poured into the boat, she asked one man for his knife, the other for the wood so she could sliver down the rectangle to fit the more circular hole. But he who had the knife didn’t think it was necessary for the job, so he held onto it; and the guy with the wood was ideologically opposed to using so precious a wood as teak for so plebeian a task. The more she implored them to cooperate, the more they argued and the more they held onto what they had.

So they swam a long way to shore.

Watching Washington coping with the deluge of last week’s bad news, this parable seemed to describe not only coping with the credit mess, but also what American society has become.

We’ve certainly seen it on the state level, most obviously on the transportation mess: rather than a deluge, this is a deadlock which, like the credit crisis, freezes what should be fluid. In the Assembly, ideologies like those of the anti-taxers have prevented the necessary funding that we, as a society, need for life to keep moving. They won’t let go. And greater cost to all of us is a result, whether it be of time spent in gridlock, or money in increased property taxes that localities have no choice but to levy.

I suspect we’ll be watching many clutching to their state programs and funding the way the guy clinches his piece of wood, unwilling to give up that which may not be all that useful anyway for what can help save the boat. It will be harder to give up that which IS useful.

What I most miss is a spirit of trying to work together, under respected leadership, to resolve a challenge that may be even more dire as float-or-swim. There are two issues to this. One is leadership, or the lack thereof: Virginia’s governor proposed a transportation solution but couldn’t find people to sponsor it, and didn’t’ knock heads to get it done. The Speaker of the House of Representatives gave a partisan speech while calling for bipartisanship (not that her speech had any bearing on the outcome, regardless of what the attackees had to say). The lame-duck President and his Secretary of the Treasury worked more with a battle-axe than an epee to obtain a complicated, delicate response.

The other side, though, is the lack of cooperation. Congress passed the “bailout bill” to help save the economy only with an extra $100 billion in “sweeteners.” What does it tell us when congressmen have to be virtually bribed before they cooperate? Again we see it on the state level when our Assembly a year ago took until June to pass a budget that was due in March. Last session, the Governor ended up appointing judges because the Assembly couldn’t agree. On money and transportation, so it goes.

We do better, mostly, on the local level. Since there are no Democratic or Republican potholes, our council members in the cities, and supervisors in the county, tend to cooperate: at least they’re not riven by partisan politics. Instead, officials simply have to work together to get things done. If they don’t, everyone in town quickly sees it, and as the county found last year, the sight is not soon forgotten.

I wish our state and federal officials would remember it too. For when they don’t share, then we all end up in the drink.


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