As you travel along Interstate 40 through Northern Arizona, past the remnants of the fabled Route 66, you'll encounter two highway exits that lead to breathtaking examples of the destructive power of geological and astronomical forces. One, of course, is the Grand Canyon, some seventy or so miles north of Flagstaff. The other, just a short drive from Winslow, is Meteor Crater, the sort of commercialized venture ("Experience the Impact!") that makes one grateful that the National Park Service managed to keep most of America's premier natural treasures out of the hands of business school graduates.
Anyone who has seen both will tell you that the Grand Canyon is by far the more spectacular. There is a reason that Arizona's license plates don't refer to it as the Meteor Crater State. The crater, on the other hand, is more conveniently located, just off the highway, and attracts thousands of visitors each year despite the fact that it is, when you think about it, just a big hole in the ground.
We are fortunate that the cable news industry wasn't around when each of these natural phenomena was getting started. Because you know which one would have received the 24/7 O.J.-just-ran-a-stop-sign coverage. The gradual erosion of the canyon would, to say the least, make for bad television. The meteor, on the other hand, would merit its own logo and theme music. TERROR FROM THE SKIES! Panels of radio talk show hosts would be convened to consider the implications of this celestial attack on the president's job approval rating. The Neanderthal ancestor of Pat Robertson—who, oddly enough, would look and act just like Pat Robertson—would drop by to explain that the meteor was a warning from the almighty against Adam and Steve, or Wiccans in the Army, or insufficient tithing, or something equally preposterous.
Meanwhile, the Colorado River would slowly, methodically carve its gaping wound into the skin of the Earth, out of sight and out of mind.
This could be the story of global warming, but it isn't. We seem to have gotten lucky there, with enough good visuals (ice shelves collapsing and all that) to keep the TV folks at least partially engaged. If Tennessee ends up with beachfront property, it won't be because nobody was paying attention.
Instead, I'm thinking about the thirty years since Americans were successfully sold the lie that we could have it all without bothering to pay the tab. When California's Proposition 13, a measure designed to slash property taxes, was under consideration in 1978, opponents warned that it would cripple schools, libraries, parks, and other public services. Prop 13 author Howard Jarvis, the jowly front man for the state's big landlords, assured voters that shortfalls could be avoided simply by fat cutting and belt tightening, two empty metaphors that have persuaded generations of Americans to vote against their self-interest. As it often does, this non-argument carried the day in 1978, and Proposition 13 passed easily.
Then, with perhaps a bit of buyer's remorse, Californians sat back and waited apprehensively for the meteor to hit. When would the first library close, the first school district turn away children, the first prison empty its cells? The answer, of course, is that none of this happened, at least not at first. The local media, unable to locate a crater, pronounced the experiment a success, and the way was paved for Ronald Reagan to take the tax slashing campaign national.
Meanwhile, the slow erosion of California's public infrastructure commenced outside the glare of the media spotlight. Eventually, nearly all the greatest fears of Prop 13's foes were validated, but by then, the subject had changed at least a dozen or more times. Nevertheless, as predicted, libraries deteriorated, schools hired inferior teachers on emergency credentials to lecture in overcrowded, portable classrooms, and prisons reached and then exceeded capacity, sending violent felons back into dissolving neighborhoods. Even the highway system, the state's crown jewel for most of the twentieth century, soon grew inadequate the meet the demands of a growing population, and the two-hour commute was born.
Since all this happened in the fullness of time, it was easy for the tax cutters to disassociate Prop 13 from its increasingly dire consequences. Besides, millions of Golden Staters had by then become addicted to property tax rates that were ridiculously out of kilter with skyrocketing real estate values. Perhaps more than anything else, however, time itself was an ally of the tax cutters. Californians born after 1970 have never known any other life; to them, the Grand Canyon has always been there, an unchangeable part of the natural scenery. But even for their elders, the slow erosion blurred the link between cause and effect.
This is a problem. Even the worst, most short-sighted policies rarely result in a made-for-television smoldering crater. Instead, they produce the sort of unobservable erosion that, measured only on a daily basis, vindicates the snake oil salesmen and turns the truth tellers into just so many Chicken Littles. To be sure, there are always exceptions, Hurricane Katrina being the latest and most prominent. Nevertheless, the advantage will almost always be with the promise makers and not the promise keepers.
Just something to remember as we head into another election year.