The Unexpected Benefit of Bumper to Bumper Traffic

I am stuck in traffic on the West Side Highway. They are fixing potholes up ahead and so two lanes are closed, backing things up for what seems like miles but is really no more than three or four furlongs. Nothing to do but sit; I look around and see the cherry blossoms along the riverfront (to my left) and in the parkland (to my right). Other trees are starting to bud; cyclists enjoy the riverside trail on this first warm day of spring.

In the distance is a tugboat pushing a barge upriver, framed by the George Washington Bridge but not, I know, nearly there yet. I am at 86th Street: the trees don’t yet obscure the prewar buildings up on Riverside Drive, and the Normandy is unmistakable: its Art Deco line takes up the whole block. I think of Nick and Nora, swilling too much gin and having too much fun while they sort out the identity of the Thin Man.

As suddenly as traffic stopped, it starts again: I have arrived at the pothole brigade and make my way past, reluctantly now: eyes on the road instead of on my surroundings, this grand pocket of nature (one of many) tucked alongside the concrete and the steel, the granite and the glass.

Context

My last post (“The Drill of Victory”) demonstrates the hazards of the topical bon mot in a virtual medium that lasts, well, virtually forever. To look at it now must engender some head-scratching; at the time, it was a reaction — a riposte — to Senator McCain and others. Perhaps it’s not quite so out-of-context: the rallying cry of the Republican ticket was, after all, “Drill, Baby, Drill!” when it wasn’t “Drill here, drill now, drill more!”

But I do stand by what I said back in June; and, perhaps, it was prescient: the rallying cry didn’t augur well for McCain, after all.

Nation Building

On a visit last year to Maryland, I had the opportunity to revisit (or visit) some of the monuments around Washington, DC. While my seven-year-old happily snapped pictures to show her class, I read the inscriptions on the walls. Several, in the Jefferson and FDR Memorials, struck me as particularly apposite.

Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Samuel Kercheval dated 12 July 1816, wrote:

I am certainly not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

Take that, SCOTUS! So much for “original intent”: the interpretation of our laws (and our standards) must be consistent with our time, not Jefferson’s. (Anybody want to argue that Jefferson couldn’t know the framers’ intent far better than anyone on today’s Supreme Court?)

For just one clear example, consider Jefferson’s immortal words in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” All men? Our laws recognize (even if some of our people do not) that this includes not only white men, but women, too, and both genders in rainbow hues: in a word, all humankind. The delivery on that promise, though considerably advanced from two centuries ago, still has not been fulfilled: though all men are created equal, it is still only citizens who can claim the basic rights guaranteed under the Constitution — a situation that has, sadly, deteriorated substantially since 2001.

Moving around the Tidal Basin to the FDR Memorial, I found that the words of Franklin Roosevelt are as true today as they were seventy-odd years ago:

No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources. Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order.

Second Fireside Chat on Government and Modern Capitalism, September 30, 1934.

We might update this for today: underemployment is as bad as unemployment, surely; and the frenzy for “outsourcing” and shipping jobs overseas might be good for the corporate bottom line, but only if the displaced employees (and their counterparts at other companies) can still afford the products and services they once produced themselves.

I never forget that I live in a house owned by all the American people and that I have been given their trust.

Fireside Chat on Economic Conditions, April 14, 1938

This is the essence of “good government,” isn’t it? Remembering, always, that you are a public servant and answerable to the people of the United States; too often, those in high office invert the relationship, believing instead that the people are answerable to them.

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