Let The Fire Burn?

(December 2013)

We are surrounded by raging fires, infernos large and small threatening everything we hold dear and everyone we love.  There is water to douse the flames, but it's clear that no matter how much we exert ourselves, there can never be enough to extinguish every fire -- and even the effort to create vessels to carry the water is a struggle.  

This is how I understand our political world.

Every problem we confront as a society is like a fire.  Disease, poverty, and environmental threats are conflagrations of seemingly endless scope, immense forests burning out of control.  Trash collection, police protection, and traffic control are continuous burns that require endless vigilance.  Tinder and kindling are everywhere so it just takes a spark to create a new crisis and new flames at any time.

Yet, there is a fountain of water -- a near-endless supply of will and resources -- that we can draw from to fight and extinguish the fires and address our challenges.  We know that if we concentrate our efforts, we can douse the flames of fires small and large.  We have defeated the Nazis, cured Polio, and placed a man on the Moon.  The fountain of all of our collective human and material resources, properly harnessed, can solve any problem.  But it cannot solve every problem at the same time, which is what sets before us the great dilemma of every society.  

How do we decide which problems to solve?  How do we decide which fires we will extinguish, which we will fight, and which we will let burn?

The answer is politics.

Politics is the system we use to apportion our society's resources.  We hold elections to choose our leaders.  Our leaders vote on budgets and other matters.  To get elected and to win votes, leaders build and use political support. 

Effective elected officials are able to win election and use their political power to make real and lasting progress.  Ineffective ones cannot manage to win the support necessary to make meaningful change.  The best use their power to marshal our collective resources to benefit the needs of the many.  The worst squander our resources to benefit only themselves.

Undoubtedly, to generate necessary support, even the most well-intentioned and adept politician might have to build support by spilling some water on a fire that is of concern to another politician or supporters.  Certainly, there can be no large undertaking that is completely effective, so leaks and waste occur.  Still, the most successful leaders will create vessels built sturdy, to get the resources where they are most needed to solve our problems.  The sieve-like vessels created in many other cases waste water or spill so much off to generate necessary support that there is not enough left to douse the flames.  Sadly, as water is wasted, the fires only rage stronger.

Philadelphia faces daunting blazes.  Too many live in need while our city struggles to deliver many basic municipal services.  At the municipal level, the fountain of will definitely is limited and many of the fires that confront us are fueled by sources external to our borders.  Poverty in Philadelphia is shamefully high, but it is an issue where city officials can only have an impact at the margins.  Without action on a larger level, the globe will warm even if Philadelphia reduces its own carbon footprint.  Still, there can be no doubt that we have the ability to solve local problems -- to put out the fires.

The next mayor will spend more than $30 billion from the city’s General Fund, assuming the mayoralty lasts eight years.  The total Philadelphia local government expenditure over those eight years, including the School District budget and other city funds, will be approximately $100 billion.  Billions and billions more will be spent locally for government-funded capital projects on top of all of the annual expenditures.  That is a LOT of public will to bring to bear to address the challenges that confront us.

"Let the fire burn," must cease to be the Philadelphia way.  

I know we cannot douse every blaze, but, from time to time, we must be able to look back with a satisfied smile upon what was once ablaze to see a fire conquered and extinguished.  

Let’s look back a decade from today and not just say that ours is a safer city or a cleaner city.  Let’s be able to say that Philadelphia is a safe city; that ours is a clean city.  

Let’s not whimper that we held the line or that things would have been worse but for our efforts.  Let’s put out some fires.  

Can Philadelphia's leaders be vessel-builders or are they destined to be sieve-carriers?  Can we extinguishing the fires we are fighting?  Or are we content to spill water here and there while fires spread?  No, we will never be able to extinguish every fire, but that is no excuse to not douse any flames.