Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Fence, The Net, or The Ambulance?

As President Obama et al start looking at where to go from where we have wound up, I (needless to say) have two cents of my own I'd like to throw in, if anyone's listening. It's been suggested that there are two methods for dealing with social problems -- one focused on dealing with difficulties after the fact, the other focused on preventing the difficulties in the first place. These orientations have sometimes been typified by "the ambulance" and "the fence."

"The ambulance" is placed in the valley to pick up members of a community who have fallen from some particular social cliff or other. The ambulance is expensive, often state-of-the-art, technologically masterful, and always loud. But it is, after all, an ambulance. By the time it arrives on the scene, the damage, if you will, has already been done. Some broken, bleeding clump of what once was human lies moaning or dead on the valley floor, awaiting appropriate disposal. However rapidly the ambulance arrives, and however technologically impressive its expertise and equipment, those who have fallen are never the same after the fall; and the long stays in the hospital, specially trained personnel and treatment necessary long after the incident cost the community dearly both fiscally and socially.

"The fence," on the other hand, is built on the edge of the cliff, with its costs occurring before individuals fall. It's very difficult to determine after it's built whether or not it did any good. No one fell, but then maybe no one would have fallen anyway. Even when a community decides to build a fence, it's often built too short, too light-weight, and with holes in it. This is, in some ways, worse than having no fence at all because, since the fence sometimes works, it isn't possible to predict in advance when someone will fall through. This is particularly sad when it involves the community's children because they are, at least, born innocent and because they are the community's future one way or the other.

It has been said that the community will either "pay now or pay later;” that it will either build the fence at whatever cost is involved, or it will have to support forever the ambulance in the valley. Proponents of the fence lobby for a high, solid, deeply imbedded fence the entire length of the cliff and well maintained over time. Proponents of the ambulance counter that such a project would be far too expensive, and after all, most of the community members don't fall from the cliff. They admit that those who do fall cost the community a great deal, but in the end they're willing to risk those charges rather than to pay the other one earlier in the process.

Pro-fence supporters argue that it is not necessary for anyone to fall and that the ambulance costs far more in the end than the fence would have cost. Furthermore, they point out, some pro-ambulance supporters eventually buy stock in the ambulance company and benefit from its continuing use. Pro-ambulance supporters retort by calling pro-fence supporters unrealistic idealists who would bankrupt the community for the sake of a few individuals who probably would scale the fence and jump over anyway.

The upshot of this argument is that a badly built, poorly maintained and thus inadequate fence does, in fact, get erected, but as much money as it costs, lack of cohesive planning and shared commitment sabotage the effort. This makes it appear that the pro-ambulance supporters were right. So, more and more is ultimately spent on the fleet of vehicles to deal with the physical and emotional disasters which ensue year after year, involving increasing numbers of the cliff-dwelling community on a daily basis.

Eventually, the community members become so frustrated with the situation that they put up a safety net between the cliff and the valley floor. It doesn't catch everyone who falls, but it's easier to maintain than the fence and cheaper in the long-run than the ambulance. It serves some neighborhoods better than others because of its position, but it’s easy to sell to the community at large because the ones who vote tend to live in the neighborhoods most positively affected by the position of the net. Besides, who could argue against a mechanism that does, after all, catch some of those who fall?

Over time, so much attention, planning and expenditure go into this scattered approach that it's forgotten that a proper fence would retire both net and ambulance. So many private and public agencies become involved in the process of analyzing and evaluating and maintaining and interfacing, participating in the fence-net-ambulance dialogue, that the process sometimes takes precedence over the people the process was implemented to protect. And even more intricately problematical is the fact that the people who need the protection most are often not only those who fall. They are rather those who encounter more and more regularly the increasing numbers of broken, bleeding bodies (and psyches) in various stages of decay and recuperation, some of whom never fully recover, but crawl around on the valley floor and up the road to the community on the hill.


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