We are not broke. We are not anywhere near broke. But we may in fact be broken.
Our political system is broken, our national will is broken, our sense of ourselves as a people is broken, our commitment to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” is broken. Our willingness to invest in each other and in our future is broken.
And I know of no better illustration than the debate over the federal gasoline tax.
Today, the Highway Trust Fund sits empty. It’s been 10 years since Congress could manage a full-scale authorization of the major source of transportation financing in this country. For the past four years, Congress has been patching together funding on a piecemeal basis. It is doing so again as you read this, passing a two-month funding extension while they work on a “permanent solution” that will never come. Because we are broken.
The problem, of course, is the gasoline tax that is supposed to keep the highway fund solvent. The last time the tax was raised was 1993. As the charts above document, the price of a movie ticket has more than doubled in those 22 years. The price of a new car has almost tripled. The price for gasoline has more than doubled. The price that we are willing to pay for almost every good and service provided by the private sector has increased substantially since 1993, while we insist that the price that we pay for public goods must never rise a penny.
The system cannot operate that way, and by “system” I mean the transportation system as well as the political system.
Many people on both the left and right attribute that change of attitude to President Ronald Reagan, the icon of modern conservatism. They are simply wrong. The actual Reagan — the man, not the mummified myth — understood the difference between campaign rhetoric and implementing policy, between the poetry of politics and the hard prose of governance.
The actual Reagan raised the gasoline tax. He not merely raised it, he more than doubled it, from four cents a gallon to nine cents a gallon. He also set aside a penny of that amount and reserved it for use in financing mass transit. Atlanta’s MARTA system was financed in part through that special fund.
And Reagan did not take such a step reluctantly. He advocated it and fought for it. “America can’t afford throwaway roads or disposable transit systems,” he said. “The bridges and highways we fail to repair today will have to be rebuilt tomorrow at many times the cost.”
As he told the country in a 1982 radio address:
“Common sense tells us that it’ll cost a lot less to keep the system we have in good repair than to let it crumble and then have to start all over again. Good tax policy decrees that wherever possible a fee for a service should be assessed against those who directly benefit from that service. Our highways were built largely with such a user fee — the gasoline tax. I think it makes sense to follow that principle in restoring them to the condition we all want them to be in.”
Common sense, he said. What a quaint concept.
Can you imagine any modern Republican today making such a statement? The Tea Party would howl, Rush Limbaugh would condemn him as a RINO, the Ted Cruzes of the world would snort in derision, Grover Norquist would read him out of the conservative movement and the Club for Growth would recruit somebody to run against him in the primary. And that somebody would probably win.
I write all this as someone who never voted for the man, but who also recognizes how those who came after him have distorted and perverted his message. Unlike those who claim to honor him, Reagan understood the difference between a political philosophy that guides your choices and a hard, unyielding dogma that dictates those choices, and that is enforced with a Stalinist ferocity. He also had faith in what we could accomplish together.
But those who claim to be his heirs have taken the man and turned him into a cartoon that does their bidding, a graven image that bears little resemblance to the actual flesh-and-blood human being. It is not his fault, but the fault of those who have corrupted his legacy and are in the process of breaking the country that he loved.