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The gathering storm


Sometimes in the noise of the news there will be a single item that pops out with clarity. That happened when I heard about Tracy, California, which is charging $300 every time the fire department answers an emergency call that doesn't involve a fire.

That summons up not only the prospect of little Susie's kitten being left to die up in the tree, but also of her dad who has just collapsed with an asthma attack. One citizen said if her husband had a heart attack, she'd set her kitchen table on fire to dodge the fee.

Photo above by Mike Hollingshead.

To be sure, you can buy an annual package deal for $48, which makes sense if you average more than one emergency call every six years. I'm not sure if that's $48 for one non-fire call, or if you get unlimited calling. Tracy (population 81,714) is not the only town considering charging for emergency services. So is Los Angeles.

Of course, the extra fee will be paid by your insurance company, right? Not a chance. Poor folks may have to look twice at a family member writhing on the floor and ask, "Are you really $300 worth of sick?" That's why we all consider it more or less our right to pick up the phone and dial 911. Of course since the whole community shares the cost of the emergency call, that's socialism, right?


At least our taxes only have to pay for the cost of the calls themselves. Tracy has hired out-of-town contractors to handle the billing for the $300 calls, and keep the records on the $48 annual pre-buyers. This company will be handling paperwork that never existed before, and that will cost money. It probably expects to make a profit. What percentage of the $300 will return to the city of Tracy? Enough to pay for the calls, I hope. Probably less that if Tracy collected the money itself. How many $300 calls are they expecting? What's the City Clerk for?

Hiring private companies to handle city services is a two-edged sword. I believe our Mayor Daley now regrets he signed a 75-year-lease with a company to take over the city's parking meters. There was a time when Chicagoans grumbled about parking fees but figured, well, they're a lot less than in New York. These bandits came in and immediately multiplied parking meter fees. In the Loop, an hour which in 2008 cost a quarter now costs $3.50.


Has this resulted in windfall income for the city? No, according to the Chicago News Cooperative. Daley got a $600 million upfront payment, and will spend that amount in two years. Chicago gets $1.15 billion over 75 years. But wait! Wait! The deal is good for Private Enterprise, right? Conservatives like Rumsfeld even wanted to privatize the U. S. military. At least stockholders can profit from our parking meters. That's good, or it would be, if 25% of the new meter company weren't owned by Abu Dhabi's Sovereign Wealth Funds, another 24% by German investors, and the rest by Morgan Stanley.

As nearly as anyone can figure out: (1) Chicago would have made more money owning the meters itself, (2) Parking Meters LLC is making money hand over fist because it quadruped the charge for a fixed-cost service, and (3) Chicago business is hurting because retail customers resist paying $3.50 an hour, or up to $29 fee in parking garages after you stay more than 15 minutes -- or one hour, or whatever. Parking garages fees have doubled. Now most retail stores offer discount parking if they stamp your ticket -- which costs them money, so they're paying Abu Dhabi too. It doesn't take Stephen Hawking to figure out that Abu Dhabi and Morgan Stanley wouldn't have come anywhere near our parking meters unless they knew they could clean up. Chicago got taken to the cleaners.

storm-chaser-violent.jpgPhoto above by Mike Hollingshead.

Fire departments and parking meters are symptoms of a larger problem. As Thomas Friedman phrased it so elegantly in The New York Times, our free lunch is over. The United States caroused like a drunken sailor in the postwar years. If you were doing well, that could mean two cars in every garage. A bedroom for every family member, and an office or den, and a living room, plus maybe a family room, plus a dining room or "area," and a finished basement and a deck and a kitchen full of appliances. Yes, America has poor people -- way, way too many. But the household I just described, which in 1950 would have been a rich family's mansion, became a reality for a many middle-class families, and you know it.

Not long ago I revisited my own childhood home and found it to be, gee, a lot smaller than I remembered. Chris Jones in Esquire, who paid a visit to my home town, described 410 E. Washington as "little." It didn't seem little then. And if we never paid to have a concrete driveway poured, my dad said gravel made for better traction in the snow. Anyway, I'm not thinking about how we lived. I'm thinking of how we're all not going to live. You know about the economy and the housing crisis. Now I read an additional four million suburban families are facing not only foreclosure but in many cases actual homelessness. Not in their worst nightmares did these people imagine such a future.


The state of Illinois is broke. The schools aren't being paid. It's the same in California. Where do you live? It's pretty much the same everywhere. Cities are broke. Universities are laying off faculty. Storefronts are for rent. Condos are unsold. Companies are going bankrupt. Costs are going up. In my tiny world, the cost of high-speed internet in the Press Room of the Oscars this year is $500. If you know much about the cost of wi-fi , $500 for six hours is extortion. But you need to make that phone call. Your job requires wi-fi. You're sick, and need to buy those drugs for twice what they cost in Canada. If you sell something people absolutely must have, you feel justified in sticking them up.

When Chicago announced not long ago it would not have its annual Fourth of July fireworks extravaganza, people were stunned, and it was a big deal. We didn't need fireworks, but they were part of our summer ritual. A million people would line the lakefront. That required a lot of police, garbage collectors, portable potties and, yes, emergency services. Now we don't have the money. Hey, maybe a private company could shoot off some fireworks and charge admission? Impractical. You can see the damn things from miles away.


The Senate finally got a jobs bill passed, thanks to Republican senators who broke with party ranks. They defended themselves by saying: "My state needs this." Do you live in a state that doesn't? The next step is health care. We have the most expensive health care in the world, and compared to the results of other developed nations, it's way overpriced. The free lunch for drug and insurance companies is over, too. If nothing is done to rationalize health costs, will we see sick people in tent cities in the parking lots of hospitals?

If we all agree we should share the cost of 911 calls, why don't we want to share the costs of what we may require after we place one? How many people can afford a really serious illness in their family, even if they have insurance? If you think you can, maybe you know somebody else who thought they could, but they couldn't. If the TeePees are serious about the evils of federal health care, let them be consistent and demonstrate against Medicare.


We can't afford the surcharge added to medical costs by insurance companies, HMOs, drug companies and all the rest. We don't have the money. When the Democrats and some courageous Republicans get Health Care through, a whole lot of people are going to benefit, and even more are going to like the idea of it. They will remember that the official Republican policy was "Just say no." The GOP has been captured by a far-right movement that places its abstract ideology above practical needs and concerns in the real world. Well, it does. You can see that when Tea Partiers demonstrate against their own self-interest.

Those poor TeePee people are manipulated by ideologues who in many cases are themselves manipulated by lobbyists. Did you read about one big provision Republicans objected to in the new Obama health bill? It was the one that wanted to do something about how insurance companies use "preexisting conditions" to cancel policies. This is real simple: Who stands to benefit by being against language on "preexisting conditions?" It's not anybody with a policy. It's the insurance companies.


As it now stands, if it's any more watered down, Obamacare will be homeopathic. It incorporates so many compromises with the Republicans that anyone voting against it isn't opposing the language -- they're just opposing Obama. We can't afford that. The American voters are pretty smart, and they're figuring that out.

We're in for some hard times. We need to pull in our belts, pay more taxes, demand more value for our taxes, and say no to an ideology that requires converting our health money into corporate profits. We should to raise the lowest wages, and lower the highest ones. We have to return to the saying my father quoted to me a hundred times: "A fair day's work for fair day's pay." No, I don't think everyone should be paid the same wage. If you earn a lot of money, you have a right to a lot of money. If you earn it. But when Wall Street bosses are paid millions in bonuses for bankrupting their firms, and their political tools in Congress oppose a better minimum wage, that's plain wrong. It's rotten. People who defend it with ideology are strapped to a cruel ideology.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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