Thursday, October 7, 2010

We Are All Gene Cranick

It’s been interesting to watch the story of the Tennessee house fire ricochet around the media -- and morph and change in the process.

I wrote about the Cranick fire way back on Saturday. My post generated some interesting comments; since then the story has gone national and the narrative has changed as people search to identify the bad guy.

Is the bad guy the South Fulton FD, whose firefighters stood by as the Cranick house burned with their three dogs and cat inside (and would they have sat and watched as Cranick children burned alive inside the home, not just their pets? I wonder...)? Sweetening that perspective is the growing narrative that the Cranicks simply “forgot” to pay their $75 fire protection fee. This is a new embellishment: Last weekend, let me remind you, Gene Cranick told the media:
"I thought they'd come out and put it out, even if you hadn't paid your $75, but I was wrong," said Gene Cranick.

So now it’s that he “forgot”? Well, maybe he did. Who am I to say he didn’t?

Glenn Beck portrays the Cranick family as the bad guys , mocking them with a fake Southern accent for failing to pay the $75 fee and “sponging off your neighbor's resources.” Cranick wanted something for nothing and that makes him a community parasite, says Beck. Now, we don’t know what Gene Cranick wanted -- and anyway, even if it were true, there’s really no reason to be such an asshole to someone who just lost everything. Beck needs to tone it down a notch. (Yeah, I know, dream on.)

A commenter at ThinkProgress (I can’t find the link at the moment) blames right-wing conservative voters in Obion County for setting up such a flawed system to begin with. The commenter mentioned that a mere 13-cent property tax increase would have supplied fire services county-wide. I’m not sure where that property tax information came from or if it’s even true. As Mr. Beale pointed out when we discussed it this morning, if it’s true that’s probably 13-cents per $100 of home value. If the house is worth $100,000 that’s $130 added to your taxes just for fire protection. $75 is a much better deal and is probably more affordable to a lot more people in this poor, rural area.

And then we have the conservative National Review, which sees this incident as bad for Libertarianism because it shows what we Lefties have all been saying: Libertarianism lacks morality. Writes Daniel Foster:

I’m a conservative with fairly libertarian leanings, but this is a kind of government for which I would not sign up.

Well, duh. Libertarians worship a political philosophy which views selfishness as a virtue, remember? Yeah it’s all fun and games until someone’s house burns down as the firefighters sit there, hoses at the ready, to put out the neighbors' house, should the fire spread. How do you like them apples? Apparently, we don't like them at all.

I watch and read as all of this is being chewed over and find myself fascinated at the dynamic. This is just the latest story about failure of a government institution, yet much as the Righties would like to blame Big Bad Government they can't, because this was a fee-pay fire service. And much as the Lefties would like to blame free market Libertarianism we really can't because this wasn't a privatized fire department, it was a public fire department providing service outside its basic service area for a fee.

So it's all very interesting but a lot of it misses the point. The real lesson is the one I made on Saturday, which is that we are a nation of Gene Cranicks. Nationwide communities are shuttering services very intentionally, doing with shorter school weeks, less public transit, and fewer public safety services. So we should all look at this incident as a "teachable moment" about the public good, taxes, and public services. Whether you see Gene Cranick as a victim or a parasite, now would be a good time for us to discuss the role of government in our communitieis and how much we are willing to pay for it.

I have done lots of posts on communities like Colorado City which are slashing city services as budgets get ever tighter. I suspect that those voting to cut these services are people who don't use them anyway.

I've mocked those in Nashville who claim it’s their "God-given right as a Metro taxpayer” to have as many trash carts as they want and suck up as much landfill space as they want, yet recoil in horror at a property tax increase or $35 fee for an extra cart. Sure we want the service, but we don't want to pay for it! But give some single mom food stamps or put her kids in a Head Start program and that’s socialism! Heh, it’s always socialism when the goodies go to someone else, amiright?

These folks are Glenn Beck's Gene Cranick: doing without because hey, the house isn't on fire right now anyway, and maybe it never will be, right? Let's just kick the can down the road and hopefully it will all work out. But inevitably they are the first to complain when the services they feel entitled to are no longer there.

Then we have the Left's Gene Cranick, the guy who is the victim. The guy who “forgot” to pay his fee, who “forgot” to pay attention to this stuff. Hey he offered to pay the $75 while his house was burning. Why can’t we be all like bygones and stuff, right? They forget that paying the fee ahead of time helps maintain the system so it's there when they -- or their neighbors -- need it. Maybe these folks need to speak up a little more and get a little more involved to make sure the infrastructure they want wasn't classified as "government waste" by some Libertarian type while they were off doing something else.

Maybe these folks should make an effort to vote in midterm elections. Just sayin'.

You know, folks, I think we’ve reached a critical point here. We are starting understand the true consequences of our action and our inaction. We’re starting to get that we’re all in this together. Fires spread. Entire cities have been leveled by fires which started in just one home, then grew to consume one neighborhood after the other.

It's the perfect metaphor for where we are. There are all sorts of fires: the uneducated kids from one neighborhood who become a burden on the entire community. Or the folks on Privilege Parkway who can afford to pay extra for trash collection and mowing grass: they see no problem with cutting the public works budget, do they? But guess who will be the first to complain when Unfortunate Avenue's rat infestation spreads inside their gated community? You got it.

After 30 years of "trimming government waste" we've reached a point where we've redefined "waste." Now waste is a five-day school week in some places. It's food for a single mom, or a Head Start program for her kids. It's any service we don't directly use--or aren't using right at the moment. Few stop to consider the indirect benefit we receive when others have access to them, even fewer are prudent enough to realize that the day may come when we will need those services too. These chickens will come home to roost, people. Yet so many folks have just checked out of the process completely. Fire protection? Meh. Schools? Our kids are grown!

People need to pay attention. Whether you see Gene Cranick as a victim or parasite, it doesn’t matter. Because we are all victims and we are all parasites. The fault, Horatio, is not in our politics but in ourselves. We're selfish, every last one of us. It's human nature. We want the services and don't want to pay for them, not if we don't have to. Or we don't mind paying for them but we don't want to show up at the public meeting or write our council person or Congress Critter to let them know.

We're all Gene Cranick. We "forgot" to pay for our democracy, be it with our participation or with our money.

Let's just hope the house doesn't catch on fire.