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How Big Is The Pothole?

by Paul Hein
by Paul Hein

It's been about seven years since the city tore up the street in front of our home, and poured a new concrete pavement. It hasn't held up very well, as you can see from the picture, even though the traffic is almost entirely residential, except for an occasional FedEx or UPS truck, plus, of course, the trash hauler. This particular pothole is located so that when we leave our driveway, turning left, we run over it, or just adjacent to it. Eventually, I suppose, if nothing is done, it will be large enough to swallow the car.

As I drove over it this morning, I found myself wondering about its size. Just how large is it? It's not a question easily answered. One could, with a yardstick, get its dimensions, more or less, but its shape is irregular, so from where to where would you measure? Moreover, the edges of the hole are not sharp, so what would you pick as its outer limits?

There's no doubt in my mind that if you asked twenty people to measure this hole, you would get twenty sets of dimensions. So: is measuring a pothole a difficult job? Few people would answer affirmatively, but in fact, those same people, if asked to do so, could not determine the size of the hole with any precision.

On the other hand, the trajectory of a rocket launched from Florida to Mars can be calculated exactly. I wonder if Chesterton, that master of paradox, ever considered that so-called "simple" jobs may be nearly impossible to do; the difficult can often be accomplished routinely.

Oh, sure, you're going to tell me that engineers, using laser mapping, could make a three-dimensional model of the pothole, and design a patch which would fit exactly, or very nearly so. But in the ordinary course of human events, one does not use lasers to fill potholes.

Now ask yourself if maintaining order in a certain community, by assuring justice to all, qualifies as a difficult job. Consider the sheriffs who did this job this job in countless small towns throughout the American west during this country's expansion to the Pacific. Were they highly educated technicians? Yet, unless they fell victims of their own power, which tends to corrupt, they maintained the peace, and punished wrongdoers. Governing, as the saying goes, is not brain surgery. Yet today it is done abominably: thousands of mindless bureaucrats, doing poorly that which does not need doing in the first place. On the other hand, sending expeditions into space IS brain surgery (so to speak) and it is done rather well. The rulers, in other words, can do the complicated and difficult jobs with considerable skill; the simple jobs they flub. Does hurricane Katrina come to mind?

Of course, we're dealing with psychology, as well as technology. There is prestige in space exploration — at least the rulers think so. (As I've said before, I'd give higher priority to keeping the streets repaired.) Providing justice has no cachet, although it appears to be the mark of a good prosecutor that he's sent a lot of people to jail — many of them actually guilty, even if the crime was a minor one.

The American people and their problems are so many pavements and potholes. When the potholes generate sufficient complaints, the rulers will take time from their busy schedule to slap a patch in place. Running an empire, warring against potential enemies, and imposing something called "democracy" on puzzled foreigners who neither know nor want it, is time-consuming, and requires an expertise that simply can't be lavished on those once-basic tasks of providing justice, and punishing the wicked. Absurd anachronisms! The only crime of any significance today is challenging the will of the ruling class, which is enforced internationally by the armed forces, and locally by the police. If you want someone to protect you, look to yourself. Don't disturb the rulers, enjoying their dreams of grandeur. On their glorious road to empire, you're just a small pothole. Fix yourself.

September 14, 2005

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.