Crash taxes' are growing in popularity among cash-strapped California cities … Drivers who cause accidents in at least 50 cities can be billed for the police and firefighters who show up … One more good reason to drive safely in California: If you cause an accident, you may be on the hook to pay the police and firefighters who show up to help. At least 50 cities in the state have adopted so-called crash-tax laws allowing local governments to seek reimbursement from insurance companies for the costs of sending public emergency crews to accident scenes. The fees can amount to hundreds or even thousands of dollars. If insurers don't pay, cities can hire collection agents to seek payment from the motorists involved. – LA Times
Dominant Social Theme: Despite the Greater Recession, the municipal work force must be supported.
Free-Market Analysis: As the Greater Recession continues to unroll across America, the issue of public service comes into sharper focus. In fact, public service in the United States is far more a reported phenomenon than an observable one. In New York for instance, the cult of the public servant has been taken to extremes. There is New York's "Finest" – police officers – and New York's Bravest – firefighters – and also New York's Strongest – sanitation workers. Why should workers not so long ago called garbage men (a blunt but non-pejorative term) now have the title "Strongest?" Perhaps it is a contractual perk.
Certainly, it is the toxic combination of public unions and municipal government that has turned hitherto mundane occupations into professions that allow people to retire with impressive pay packages after 20 or 25 years. The early-to-mid 2000s were probably the high-water mark for these services and now the contracts and retirements packages are proving overwhelmingly expensive for the cities and states that approved them.
Nonetheless, such pay packages and perks will not be willingly surrendered. As we can see from the article excerpted above, governments will do almost anything to keep funds flowing. In the end, however, it will not do much to correct economics that have been distorted by decades of collective bargaining and political acquiescence for vote-gathering purposes. The cash flows of the present will not support the expensive contracts of the past.
The cult of the municipal service worker has been relentlessly expanded in the US despite some level of cultural resistance. This divide has been growing for a while but as the second decade of the 2000s looms it is safe to say that it will be continually aggravated. The result will be further discord between those serve and those who are "served."
Begin with the police. What has also grown in the past decades is the idea of "law enforcement" as a career. The problem is not with the career itself but the collateral damage that stems from having so many men (and women) devoted to enforcing law and order. As the number of civil authorities has climbed throughout the West, so has the pressure to utilize the services of these individuals. The result: "broken homes, welfare payments, divorces, fines, jail terms and shattered lives, all resulting from the law enforcement growth industry."
This quote is from George Gordon, who wrote an article back in the 1980s entitled "Law Enforcement Growth Industry." He analyzed this growth as it affected Idaho and then pointed out – as the Bell itself has – how the cost of Western jurisprudence was outstripping common sense.
Gordon uses the example of a young man who steals a purse and US$350 in it. Because inflation has outstripped legal definitions, the offender is charged with Grand Larceny and sentenced to up to five years in jail. If the young man serves most of his sentence, he will cost the local and state government some US$70,000 (in 1980s dollars). For Gordon, this is a most ineffective use of resources. Interestingly, Gordon makes a case for a return to common law and tribal jurisprudence, just as the Bell has in this past year. He writes:
Where did prisons and dungeons as a form of punishment come from? The answer is lost in antiquity … When the Isrealites crossed the Jordan River, they had a different kind of law: a substantive law, based upon substance and labor … Our common law came from England, but its roots are at Mount Sinai. Moses brought the law down from the Mount, and it is recorded in Exodus 20. The next five chapters of Exodus contain the criminal codes. They are short and precise. There were no prisons or dungeons. The Israelites borrowed the prison system from the Romans, Egyptians and Babylonians, and we have that system in use today. The act of punishing the victim of a crime by taxing him to house, feed and guard the criminal is adding crime upon crime, and in addition, it is unusually cruel to lock a man up like an animal.
Police work and jurisprudence are not the only areas that will receive scrutiny as municipal finances collapse: so will fire-fighting, public health and sanitation. Fire-fighting in the USA used to be voluntarily and fairly cost effective, but once more in municipalities large and small what was once a service has been turned into a profession. Even voluntary fire-fighting associations may maintain numerous shiny vehicles with state-of-the-art firefighting equipment. The manpower and equipment far exceeds its use, usually.
Public health, too, blossomed in the 20th century during a time when central banks were able to print and circulate money without much difficulty. Today, Western economies are too distorted to absorb much more paper money (see other article, this issue) and the shortage of funds is bound to have an impact on fairy generous municipal contracts granted in times of plenty. The same goes for the sanitation industry; here perhaps contracts may not be so generous but municipalities have set up elaborate – and expensive – recycling facilities that may not be supportable in the long term.
The impact of collapsing fiat money schemes has been felt first in Europe, where "austerity" has forced various sorts of municipal cutbacks. There is certainly something to be said for reducing ineffective and prohibitively expensive government services (though we've argued that much of the austerity being imposed on Europe has more to do with EU expansionism and maintaining a sense of "crisis" than necessary budget cutting). Nonetheless, the current environment may provide a salutary debate about the growth of municipal services generally and the professionalization of its providers.
From our point of view as professional meme watchers, the exploding controversy over the cost of municipal services is another unintended side-effect of the West's drive toward global governance. In America, anyway, it is a debate that will likely undermine certain 20th century certainties about government services and their utility – and perhaps even reemphasize certain American virtues of self-reliance and independence.
It would be ironic if Western elites in their drive toward more centralized global governance, inadvertently reignited the American debate over the role and cost of public services. Eventually, we believe, the debate will extend beyond direct municipal services to the role (and expense) of public education – and even to the US military-industrial complex.