We Barely Had Road Construction Delays This Year…And That Sucks!

We’ve done a lot of roadtripping with the new (to us) camper this year.  We’ve been to four state parks.  In addition, we’re currently up for a week at a rental cottage, and next month we’ll be celebrating our five year anniversary by hitting a couple of touristy cities.

We’re happy to be doing all of this traveling in the great state of Michigan.  Our state hasn’t gotten a lot of great press over the years, but it is a beautiful place.  We have access to lakes everywhere.  The Upper Peninsula, or U.P. as it’s known, has miles of beautiful forests and lakes.  Visiting just a few of these places has been great.

And it’s been a little too easy.

For many years, the joke was always that there were two seasons in Michigan: Winter and Construction. If there wasn’t snow and ice on the ground, there were orange barrels.

This year, with all of our travels, we’ve hit very few of them.

This is a good thing from the aspects of fuel, time, and avoiding keeping two kids in the car any longer than we have to.

But, there’s a downside: It means our roads are getting older and more worn out.

In the 1990’s our governor made a pledge to have 80% of the roads in ‘Good’ or better condition. This promise was put into place and allowed for a tax increase at the pump, where there was a 19 cent per gallon gas tax (that was raised from something like 10, if memory serves).  This brought in a lot of extra money and the roads steadily improved.

All was well until inflation hit.  The problem with a flat per-gallon tax is that it never went up.  Back when that tax was put in, gas was around $2 per gallon.  Now, it’s closer to $4 and the $0.19 stays the same.

The $0.19 also doesn’t go as far as it used to.  Everything costs more than it did in the 1990’s. including roads. So, the pool of money that the tax brought in was able to fund fewer projects each year.

Oh, and about that pool, it actually started going down.  A lot.  Two reasons: Michigan started seeing population loss, meaning there were less people to fill up.  That, and cars started getting a lot better fuel economy, meaning that people required less fuel.

All that has contributed to a lot less road construction.  Those days of 80% of roads in ‘Good’ condition is long gone.  So, we have to figure out a way to start all over again.  In fact, the situation is so grim that we may lose federal funding.  See, the feds will kick in a good chunk of money as long as the state comes up with a certain amount.  With that requirement inching up and our revenues inching down, we could lose even more federal matching.

That would be bad.  Our governor actually brokered a deal where we have a second bridge to Canada being built that the Canadians are paying for.  And, even though they’re paying for it, the costs will be considered ‘expenditures’ for the purposes of federal matching.  Meaning, for at least the next couple of years, we’ll be able to use Canadian money to help the money flow in from the feds.

Still, the system needs to be fixed.

I love driving without all the orange cones, but at the same time I realize that if those cones don’t start reappearing, it’s going to mean bad things for our infrastructure.  So, I may be the only person in the world saying this, but I’m hoping that this lag in construction is only a temporary thing.

How are the roads where you live?  Have you seen any slowdown in construction activity?

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Have We Learned From Our Past….Successes?

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
George Santayana

Most people have heard of that saying, particularly when it comes to politics.  Many politicians are accused of failing to learn from past mistakes, only to repeat them with just as bad of results as when the mistake was made the first time.

I wonder, then, if the same holds true for our successes.  Do politicians take the opportunity to learn from things that actually went well?

I ask with one man in mind.

President Bill Clinton

History has been very kind to the former president.  When he was in office, it seemed that more attention went to things like his philandering, his weight, a referendum on his presidency that led to the biggest Republican sweep in the House and Senate than had been seen in decades, and even his potential impeachment.  Things did settle down as his presidency went on, but now that he’s been out of office for roughly twelve years, most of his sins are behind him, and he seems to command respect from Democrats, Republicans, and foreign leaders alike.  He has become somewhat of a statesman.

I believe that one of the reasons that he is now looked upon more favorably than when he was in office is because he was the last president to see an actual budget surplus.

Yes, there were several years under President Clinton that we did not run deficits in the hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars.  No, we actually paid down some of our debt.

I think they even turned off the debt clock for a couple of years as the number was going backwards.

Now, our deficit is spiraling, hitting over a trillion dollars a year if memory serves.

That’s a mighty big change in just a decade and then some.

Now, I doubt that anybody would suggest that President Clinton was fully responsible for those surpluses, but he was there and he was the man in charge, so history definitely looks back on those days with a different regard, especially when looking at the situation that we’re in now.

I wonder, though, do any politicians in office today, from President Obama to Speaker of the House Boehner to any of the other hundreds of men and women who make our policy decisions (including the deficit) actually take a look at the budgets from those days?

When I get my tax returns back, the account who prepares them gives a three or four year summary, showing how things have stacked up on the income and on the tax side.  This lets us see how things have changed.

I would certainly hope that politicians do a similar thing when preparing our budget, but my guess is that they only do a year or two.  But, do you think any of them put a side by side comparison between today’s budgets and the surplus budgets under President Clinton?

I bet they could learn a lot, if they did.

Now, I get that a lot has changed.  We have expenses such as an increased Homeland Security budget that came about after the 9/11 attacks.  Somewhat tied to that we have a couple of wars that we can’t seem to wind down.  I’m sure that health care costs are a lot higher, and likely Social Security and unemployment.

Still, I wonder if something could be gleaned from doing a what-if scenario.  What if we were taxing and spending in the late 1990’s as we are today?  What would our budget and economy have looked like compared to what it was?  Similarly, what if we did change all the percentages from the 1990’s and apply them to today?  On paper, it could open a lot of doors.  We certainly can’t change things that drastically, but what if it created some insight, some opportunity to apply some of the things that were successful that we’ve perhaps lost sight of over the last 12-15 years?

Isn’t it possible?

I think that many politicians don’t want to look to the past, because they want to be seen as innovative, as thinkers, as doers, and not just as repeaters.

But when we’ve got a President that sat through that successful period, and others that are alive (and likely some still serving in office), why not take the opportunity to learn from the success?

Or are politicians afraid of success, too?

Do you think there are opportunities to learn from the days of budget surplus?  Does it seem like that long ago?

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What’s The Lowest Stamp Price You Can Recall?

I don’t know how I missed it, but I guess last month the US Post Office announced that they want to institute a five cent increase in stamps.

This would bring the price of a first class letter to a cool fifty cents.

by jurvetson, on Flickr

Changes are definitely needed at the Post Office, which has been hemorrhaging money and is facing something like fifteen billion dollars in losses.

Personally, I think structural changes are the only thing that can save the USPS.  As prices rise, I think you’ll find that people will just send less in the mail, so revenue won’t increase as much as they are hoping, if at all.

I thought it would be fun to ask readers where they first remember the price of postage.

The cheapest stamp price I remember was twenty cents, which according to Wikipedia, was the price between November 1981- February1985.  I was anywhere between 7-10 during this time, so that seems about right as to when I would have had an awareness on this particular price.

What’s the earliest memory you have of postage prices? Would a five cent (11%) increase cause you to send less mail than you do today?

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Dear Government: Shut The Heck Up Already!

It’s no secret that one of the biggest causes of our spiraling national debt has to do with the fact that we are fighting a bunch of wars overseas.

These wars are costing us mucho bucks.

The biggest problem with the wars, especially in Afghanistan, is that there is no clear finish line.  World War II, we fought until the Germans, Japanese and their allies surrendered.  They surrendered, we went home.

Not so much with our current wars.  In fact, in Afghanistan, we are fighting next to the government, trying to put down rebel forces.

Sounds all nice and good, but the biggest problem that I’ve been able to see is that the Afghans are fine with letting us do the work.  We can’t leave because to do so would put the country back in turmoil.  The plan has been for us to turn operations over to the ‘locals’ but they can’t seem to pull it together enough to where we feel comfortable leaving.

But, with the way we’re running things and publicizing things, they have no incentive to.

If we’re willing to do all the dirty work, they have no incentive to step up.  That is, until we leave.

We can’t leave simply by publishing a date that we’re leaving.  Why not?  Because we’ve tried that and they know we’re just bluffing.

The way we need to get out?  Just go.

Sneak a few people out here and there.

Picture these conversations:

Week 1
Afghan commander: Hey, where did Bob and Joe go? *pointing to empty bunks*
US commander: Ah, well, their enlistments were up and they decided to go home.
Afghan commander: So, who’s their replacement?
US commander: Well, we have all this paperwork to fill out so it’ll be a while.  Hey, what say we go do that roadside bomb detection training that we’ve been putting off?
Afghan commander: Ah, maybe tomorrow.

Week 2
Afghan commander: Still no replacements for Bob and Joe?
US commander: No, we’re still working on that.
Afghan commander: Hey, how come the US flags are taken off the barracks back there? There were like 20 people in there, right?
US commander: Yeah, about that….
Afghan commander: How’s 2pm for the roadside bomb detection training?
US commander: Sounds good.

This is the only way.  The only one.  Don’t get up in front of a podium and talk about how many troops you’re going to take out next year or the year after.  Do it and talk about it later.  That’s the only way that we will get these other countries to step up and take control of their own situation.

The only other alternative is this: Charge them.  By the day.  By troop.  In barrels of oil.  They want us to stay.  They load oil on our freighters.  They don’t load the oil?  Our troops get on the freighter instead.

Are you sick of these wars already?  Was it really any surprise when they started without a clear endgame that they’d be going on indefinitely?

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