Penny wise and pound foolish

Today’s hue and cry over “fake news” is nothing new. History is filled with stories of people insisting that reality isn’t real. History consistently proves these people wrong in the end.

In the shorter term, reality has another way of putting a damper on irrational, non-evidence-based and just-plain-stupid assertions and policies: they often cost way, way more in the end than do rational ideas, making them fiscally irresponsible as well.

In other words, they’re “penny wise, pound foolish.”

While I was visiting Saint Augustine earlier this year, a guide at the historic Castillo de San Marcos recounted how city leaders long ago once tried to save money by paving some roads with wood blocks instead of stone. Heavy rains and flooding eventually caused those pavers to float away, though, so the city ended up having to spend money anyway on a more long-lasting alternative.

You would think the people in charge would learn after things like this happen again and again. But they often don’t.

You would also think the rest of us would care more about costly mistakes like this. Again, though, too often we don’t. Because these costly mistakes are frequently made in the name of various strongly held political beliefs about “belt-tightening,” “personal responsibility” and “law and order.”

In the past two weeks alone, for example, federal courts have ruled against Texas redistricting maps three times, citing those maps’ intentional efforts to discourage minority voters. So the Texas legislature will have to go back to the drawing board and waste time and money redoing something it should have done right the first time.

As Esquire’s Charles Pierce noted today, “This fandango has been going on for six freaking years.”

Not exactly fiscally responsible or in the best interest of taxpayers or voters, right?

You’ll find the same costly mistakes in the get-tough-on-crime area too. Look no further than the Chicago Police Department’s history of unjustified beatings, shootings and other misconduct. Whatever you think about “law and order,” you’ll likely agree that having to pay $662 million between 2004 and 2016 for settlements, judgments and lawyer fees is probably not a good use of taxpayer dollars.

What about the economic calculus of climate change prevention vs. climate change costs and damages? Don’t get me started. Lord Nicholas Stern covered that in exquisite detail in a ground-breaking report in 2006, and — 10 years later — he continues to stand by those findings.

And now, with a hurricane with the potential for monstrous flooding across hundreds of miles fast approaching the coast of Texas, comes word that the U.S. Border Patrol plans to keep its roadside immigration checkpoints open during evacuations. Not only is this needlessly cruel in the middle of a developing natural disaster, it’s dumb too. If you’ve ever had to evacuate for a hurricane, you know it’s slow, bumper-to-bumper traffic for miles on end. Checking papers — or doing anything else that makes evacuation even slower — puts lives at risk. Not just those of the undocumented, but the lives of everyone in those sprawling traffic lines.

Penny wise and pound foolish, it seems, isn’t always even about pennies and pounds. Instead, it’s sometimes about punishing other ideas, beliefs and people, no matter the cost.


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