Dear Grandkids, We’re Leaving You Some Bills

GrandparentsDear Grandchildren,

It’s March 16, 2013 and we’re all in a dither about the debt we’re passing along to you.  Yes, it’s a big one.  The lines on the charts look devastating indeed:

National debt by administration

We chose to ignore the actual debt and real deficit reduction efforts in order to focus on cutting the “size of government” in your life so you could have more “freedom.”

National Debt Presidencies But, all this said, we are leaving you some bills we sincerely hope you can pay!  In our fervor to erase the national budget deficits and reduce the level of national debt we left a few things for you to do to pick up after us, we hope you don’t mind.

The Water Bill:    We knew that as of 2009, and more information is coming on March 19, 2013, that we were running up an $11 billion per year backlog of funding to replace aging water system components.  In reality, the 2009 report wasn’t our first clue:

“The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) concluded in 2003 that “current funding from all levels of government and current revenues generated from ratepayers will not be sufficient to meet the nation’s future demand for water infrastructure.” The CBO estimated the nation’s needs for drinking water investments at between $10 billion and $20 billion over the next 20 years.” (emphasis added)

We knew that there had been a 159% increase in the demand for clean drinking water between 1950 and 2000, but we did precious little about the issue.  We moaned about the ARRA’s expenditures for water treatment, about how it would run up the Debt, so our Congress appropriated a “drop in the bucket.”

“The new federal stimulus law provides $6 billion for water projects, with $2 billion of that directed to drinking water systems. But that money is only, well, a drop in the bucket: a report released last month by the E.P.A. estimated that the nation’s drinking water systems require an investment of $334.8 billion over the next two decades, with most of the money needed to improve transmission and distribution systems.” [NYT, 2009]

We knew that the design life of concrete treatment plants would expire in 60-70 years, so the plants built in 1950 are now on their last legs.  We knew that the trunk mains were built to last from 65 to 95 years. Some of those are now aging into oblivion. [ASCE]  So we’re leaving you with the bill for $334.8 billion over the next twenty years to pay for the maintenance of a water distribution system we bragged about but didn’t really want to pay for.

The Sewer Bill:  Our 15,000 public wastewater treatment facilities serve about 225 million people in this country, but we’re still subject to about 900 billion gallons of good old raw sewage discharged every year from aging and dilapidated facilities. [NYT 2011]  We knew back in November 2002, when you were just little tykes, that the Congressional Budget Office estimated the expenditures needed for new and improved wastewater treatment would be in the range of $3.2 to $11 billion. [CBO pdf]  There was a Gap Analysis conducted by the CBO back in 2002 which had some more disheartening information:

“According to the Gap Analysis, if there is no increase in investment, there will be a roughly $6-billion gap between current annual capital expenditures for wastewater treatment ($13 billion annually) and projected spending needs. The study also estimated that if wastewater spending increases by only 3% per year, the gap would shrink by nearly 90% (to about $1 billion annually).

The CBO released its own gap analysis in 2002, in which it determined that the gap for wastewater ranges from $23 billion to $37 billion annually, depending on various financial and accounting variables.”  [ASCE]

So, when all is said and done, we dawdled around until the EPA estimated that it would cost about $390 billion over the next 20 years to repair or replace inadequate water treatment plants and other components of the systems.  We hope you don’t mind we’re leaving you this bill for $390 billion?

The Education Bill:  It’s hard to account for all the needs of our 98,917 public schools in this country. [NCES]   If we’re being honest, we haven’t really looked at the number of aging buildings, or carefully studied their functional age since the “turn of the last century,” in 1999.  We do know that children who are in poverty are also in the oldest buildings. [NCES]   Additionally, we’ve known this not-so-fun fact since the 1999 study: “While 40 percent of small schools (enrollments of less than 300) were built before 1950, 23 percent of large schools (enrollments of 1,000 or more) were built before 1950.”  Since large schools tend to be secondary, we can assume we’ve been following the time honored practice of building nice big new high schools and moving the junior high kids into the old buildings?  Then there’s the “portable building” problem — we’ve known since the Fall of 2005 that portable buildings have more problems which interfere with instruction than standard buildings. [NCES] While the issues might not be too far from the similar interferences in standard buildings — we know they exist — it was just cheaper to ignore them.  Our spending on school construction, as analyzed by the ASCE might give you some pause:

“While detailed conditions and needs numbers do not exist, we do have up-to-date numbers on spending levels. According to the American School and University’s 34th Annual Official Education Construction Report, school construction completed in 2007 (which included both new construction and renovations) totaled more than $20.2 billion. That is down from a peak of $29 billion in 2004. The downward trend is expected to continue: with $52.7 billion in funding is projected between 2008 and 2010. This represents a significant decrease from the $68.4 billion spent between 2005 and 2007.1″

If you are thinking that you might be able to kick this discussion down the road, as we did, because privatization is the solution to every public problem, please think again. First, the charter schools are public buildings in which instruction is immediately governed by groups outside the system.  Secondly, they may not be located conveniently near you, or serve the age groups of your offspring:

“In 2009–10, over half (54 percent) of charter schools were elementary schools. Secondary and combined schools accounted for 27 and 19 percent of charter schools, respectively. In that year, about 55 percent of charter schools were located in cities, 21 percent were in suburban areas, 8 percent were in towns, and 16 percent were in rural areas. [NCES]

There are studies indicating some charter schools are doing better than some public schools, but we have to be careful with our numbers.  For example, one summarization of the different levels of educational achievement (read: test scores) failed to note that charter schools youngsters tend to be from more financially secure families.  [WaPo]  However, if we’re honest, we’d tell you that we’ve not been looking too closely behind the numbers of either the cost of building or maintaining schools, or at the cost of employing qualified teachers… But, Hey, we walked to school and back uphill both ways in driving blizzards.   And, about those standardized tests — “States are likely to spend $1.9 billion to $5.3 billion between 2002 and 2008 to implement NCLB-mandated tests, according to the non-partisan Government Accounting Office (GAO),” as of 2005. [RSO]  We’re leaving you the bill for that too. Whatever it might be.

The War Bill:  We were going to have another “Splendid Little War,” the one in Iraq.  The Bush Administration and a compliant Congress authorized the expenditures as “supplemental appropriations,” meaning that we didn’t have to look at the tab we were running in real time.

Total federal spending associated with the war has reached $1.7 trillion. Future promised health and disability payments for veterans through 2053 add up to $490 billion. So, as it stands now, the Iraq War has cost $2.2 trillion, which is a far cry from the initial 2002 estimates of $50 to $60 billion. When you factor in the interest, war expenses could swell to more than $6 trillion over the next four decades. [NYDN]

So, we missed by a few dollars… but we’re leaving you with the very possible  $6 trillion bill anyway.

We might have paid for some of these items ourselves. We might even have given more consideration to the state of our bridges, dams, and public buildings.  We could have thought of the state of the air traffic system, or the highway syste, or the rail transportation system, we were leaving to you.  However, fretful as we were about these expenses and future costs, we decided that it was not in our best interests to close tax loopholes for giant multi-national energy corporations, or for yachts, or for private jets.  We decided that we “over taxed” our corporations, and rewarded them when they “repatriated” money earned overseas to the U.S.   We decided it was more important to appropriate money for airplanes that didn’t fly than to pay for G.I. benefits earned by service.  We decided it was more important to protect the interests of Wall Street than Main Street.  We decided that money earned in speculation was just as hard won as income from investments or good old fashioned hard labor.   We didn’t want to “burden” you with restrictions on financiers, or humongous banks, or on the incomes to be earned by the top 1% of the population — we wanted you to be “free,” to have “liberty,” and to say nice things about America!

We love you dearly, and want you to know that we think of you always.   Good Luck.   (PS: Hope you don’t mind we’re moving in with you.  After cuts in Social Security and the voucherization of Medicare we’re having a little financial difficulty at the moment.  Even Meals on Wheels isn’t coming anymore.  We could babysit for you now that the Headstart Program serves only a few kids in your neighborhood?)

The Gramps

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