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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Conservatives’ Road Music

August 10, 2012 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

We are shedding pianos. Through complex, mysterious decision making processes, pianos have become one more item cluttering rather than enhancing our lives. As a result, pianos are heading out the door rather than being hauled in.

The dark brown Baldwin that bore three kids through seventeen years of collective piano lessons? Gone. Grandma’s upright, purchased as a wedding gift? Gone. The baby grand that, the story goes, once filled the Leamington Hotel’s bar with music and now crowds a bay window? Gone.

Americans—and Minnesotans are no exception—can’t get rid of their pianos fast enough. As musical infrastructure disappears, the loss changes us. The loss lessens us. It’s a lesson that Minnesota’s policymakers should consider as they balk at passing Governor Dayton’s storm and flood relief bill.

Earlier this summer, a massive storm system rolled across Minnesota. It intensified over the greater Duluth area, dumping more rain in a short time period than anyone thought possible. While this phenomenon is unusual, it’s not rare.

Every couple of years, some part of Minnesota is seriously pummeled by storms. Where most of us regularly expect a few heavy rain showers every summer, we never believe that a particular storm will bring a true deluge. Until, it does.

Gullywashers overwhelm drainage capacity. Water, seeking the route of least resistance, washes away soil like I sweep breadcrumbs off a kitchen counter. Water’s weight and kinetic energy can rapidly undo road, bridges and sewers. But, we know this.

We also know that replacing roads, bridges and sewers, even under the best conditions, is never cheap. We’ve learned the hard way that, when it comes to infrastructure, you get what you pay for. Build a cheap road and it won’t stand up to actual driver use. Before long, that cheap road must be replaced at a greater cost than building it correctly the first time.

Consequently, I’m perplexed by conservative state policymakers’ public declaration of shock and surprise over the $189 million flood relief price tag. In a public hearing, co-chaired by State Senator Clair Robling, R-Jordan, and State Representative Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, conservative legislators repeatedly voiced cost concerns. They raised doubts about the methodology for calculating public flood-related repair costs, insinuating that something nefarious was afoot.

This is a well-established line of conservative public policy criticism. Whatever the cost calculation, the figure is always too much. Whether it’s school budgets, public safety budgets or bridge repair budgets, the proposed number is routinely cited as too much without considering the project’s proposed impact or even the opportunity cost of doing less or even nothing.

"Cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching," said Holberg, quoted by Jim Ragsdale in the Star Tribune’s Hot Dish blog, after seeing the bill for the first time. "Where's the money coming from?"

Following established state emergency response precedent, the Dayton Administration proposes tapping the State of Minnesota’s budget reserve to pay for the flood relief. Holberg suggests that emergency assistance spending be off-set by state agency budget cuts. What began as help for communities overrun by unexpectedly heavy flooding is suddenly recast as the villain in the conservative insistence that any government assistance is excessive and unnecessary. Conservative tax policy’s overarching framework trumps any other consideration.

What does this have to do with pianos? On the surface, not much; as a metaphor, everything.

Any musical instrument is a capital purchase. A piano is both an instrument and a piece of furniture. They’re not cheap to build and they take up space. As with so many things, quality costs. A new decent piano can easily run several thousand dollars.

Pianos require regular maintenance. Tuning the instrument twice a year costs several hundred dollars. Physical maintenance doesn’t include sheet music or lesson costs. Pianos, although heavy and cumbersome, don’t last forever. Even the highest quality, best made pianos eventually wear out under taught piano wires wearing pull on the frame.

Focusing on piano capitol and operating costs, however, misses the piano’s reward: music. Music elevates and transports us. Making music brings us together, creating immediate pleasure and cherished memories. Music is the outcome that merits the investment. That’s what we’re losing with a generation of discarded pianos heading for the scrap heap.

By extension, roads, bridges and sewers aren’t simply high cost ticket items organized through government for the sake of spending money. In the same way that you don’t buy a washing machine, you buy clean clothes, infrastructure gets us to where we’re going, both where we need to go and, most tantalizingly, to where we want to go. Roads and bridges, like pianos, are the means. Access, like music, is the true journey.

When Minnesota pulls together, Minnesota prospers. Let’s move past bickering and nit-picking, negotiate a responsible relief package and move Minnesota forward.

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