Snow Plows: The Government Bailout We Can All Get Behind

A massive snowstorm is coming! Twenty inches of snow will blanket our city!  Did we remember to pay our private snow-clearing insurance to plow our street?!

That last exclamation wasn’t heard in the commotion and clamor leading up to NYC’s latest Snowpocalypse. We don’t need to pay for private companies to open up our roadways because we – like many Americans – rely on local government to handle the job. 

That’s right: we depend on, and are largely served by, Big Government Snow Plows. Or, as The Tea Party and its friends at Fox News may call it: “Government Takeover of the Snow Removal Industry."

There have been delays in New York’s response and reasons to complain. The city has not handled this clean-up perfectly and some neighborhoods have been ignored longer than others. The mayor has been forced to stand up and answer public questioning. The city’s response will be held to close scrutiny by the media and members of City Council. Progress is being made steadily and sensibly, we’re getting consistent updates and we know who to hold accountable to improve the emergency plan in the future. 

Clearing our roads is a government bailout most of us applaud. It wouldn’t make sense to rely on competing private contractors to do it. What good would it do us to have a toney Upper West Side street cleared if the wider, but less wealthy, avenue it feeds into was still packed solid? What if the folks on 5th Avenue chose not to be plowed because they preferred a pedestrian-only promenade to the park? Because we rely on a network of roadways, not just individual roads, for our city to function, we can’t turn the maintenance of this network over to a labyrinthine tangle of competing interests determined by wealth and influence.

Yet, that’s what the Tea Party – and the right-wing leaders who are rising on its tide – are calling for. They’ve never met a public good they wouldn’t rather see privatized, from the Veterans Administration to school buses to Social Security. They use the bogeyman of “socialism” to deride any idea that puts faith in collective action, calling healthcare reform “socialized medicine” and even accusing bike-share programs of being assaults on our freedom. I only wish I had made that up.

The issue, of course, is that massive deregulation and privatization has led to problems like the soaring energy prices and poorer service in California earlier this decade. Meanwhile, programs like Medicare – a government-run program that embodies a collectivist spirit – is more efficient than private competition. Just because something is a private business, it doesn’t mean it’s run well. We don’t need to look further back than September 2008 to remember that lesson. And just because a conservative critic dubs something socialist, that doesn’t make it bad.

Which brings us back to Snowmageddon. Am I politicizing a snowstorm? Yes, perhaps I am. But I’m not doing it to blame particular politicians for not plowing my street quickly enough (though they didn’t). Rather, in this blizzard and its after-effects, there is a message about political practicality and political philosophy.

Practically speaking, when state and local governments cut budgets, our services decline. It may start by turning off every third street light, as the city of Cranston did to deal with its budget issues. It may lead to a Tennessee town that needs to rely on a for-pay fire department that allows a man’s house to burn down. Or it could lead to us waiting days longer for an underfunded sanitation department to make our streets passable. 

As long as we allow our public rhetoric to be dominated by demands for cuts and austerity measures, this is what we’ll see more of. We need to change the debate to talk about investment: in our roads, our schools, our energy grid, our technological infrastructure and our public health – all areas where we as citizens cannot do it alone, and where there are public interests that should override private profits. This also means we need to stop talking about taxes as a bad thing. Yes, taxes fund wars we don’t believe in and no-bid contracts we find appalling. They also clear our streets. So let’s have a battle about how to spend our taxes, but let’s stop the childish rant against taxes in general.

There’s also a more hopeful message in this snowstorm and its aftermath – not strictly policy-related though it does influence our politics. It’s the realization we’re all in this together. As New Yorkers loan each other shovels, as the able-bodied clear walks for the elderly and infirm, as we help strangers’ cars out of snow drifts, we show that we do understand a community relies on cooperation, no competition.  As one New Yorker told The New York Times about his experience being trapped overnight on a subway, “Every time when I see the situation like this, I’m very proud of the American people…No panic, no yelling. Just understanding.”

In instances like this, we remember that each of us is better off when we’re all better off; that our block, our neighborhood and our society run better when we look out for each other. It’s a relief to experience that in our city streets. Let’s make sure it permeates the halls of political power as well.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."