published Sunday, February 19th, 2012

Barrett: Peoria's, Pittsburgh's and Pensacola's gift to Chattanooga

Wanna know why America is $15.3 trillion in debt? Look no further than the Wilcox Tunnel.

OK, don't look too long. It's not pretty and nobody doubts it needs improvement.

But Wilcox Tunnel is not a federal property, and Wilcox Boulevard is not a federal road. So why in the name of broiled tuna is it the duty of Texans, Michiganders and Hawaiians to help fix the tunnel and add a new one?

It's not but you wouldn't know that from the $25 million grant Chattanooga is seeking from Washington to help pay for the job.

The U.S. Department of Transportation glosses over the messy unconstitutionality of that. Projects in line for such grants needn't explicitly be federal responsibilities but rather must have "a significant impact on the nation, a metropolitan area, or region."

Pity the poor bureaucrat who has to nail that Jell-O to a wall. It can't be done, because constitutionally those mushy distinctions have no meaning.

Cutting off federal mission creep at the pass is the purpose of the 10th Amendment, which limits the federal government to specified duties and leaves all others to the states and the people. The framers would be scandalized by the notion that a city is entitled to fund a patently local project with taxpayer dollars collected in distant states. And they'd be appalled by the leaps of logic and the word games used to justify such bilge.

The zaniest misconception is that Washington is a source of free money. A moment's thought -- I know, too much to ask in a society that can't sit still for anything longer than a Marie Osmond infomercial -- debunks that myth. If Chattanooga is getting "free" federal money for local projects, you can bet your bottom tuppence that Atlanta and Cincinnati and Phoenix and Buffalo and Boise are, too. Everybody is paying into the system, but we're getting less than we put in because before the cash is doled back to the states from whence it came, it has to go through multiple federal middle men, who all take a cut in the form of salaries and bureaucracy.

To add lunacy to injury, there will almost certainly be expressions of appreciation to Washington if Chattanooga gets its 25 million smackers. Less likely will be questions about why taxpayers had to funnel that dough through the D.C. rent-seeking machine in the first place -- or why being played for a sucker is cause for gratitude.

And no, the prospect of federal funds going to the Wilcox Tunnel and thereabouts isn't solely responsible for the national debt. But multiply that sort of thing thousands of times across the country and you're headed there. Throw in unreformed entitlements, a federal workforce in which employees are more likely to die of natural causes than to be fired or laid off, and you wind up where we are today: sitting atop a debt greater than the United States' total annual economic output.

Yay!

NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE!

We're doomed. We're all doomed.

Because at last we have come to it: the deeply held conviction that we are entitled to anything we want, and that by good golly gumdrops, somebody has a duty to give it to us.

Hear what a psychology student at the University of Memphis had to say about a plan to reduce the money provided through Tennessee's lottery scholarship if students don't have decent high school GPAs and ACT scores. The disconsolate 20-something told an Associated Press reporter, who apparently had the patience not to slap his pouty jaw, "If it wasn't for the lottery scholarship, I would have had to work my way up through community college."

(Pause for audible gasp.)

Somebody contact the authorities! Let lamentations resound through the land! Make the world stop turning! A student having to start his post-secondary education at a community college? Why not herd coeds to the salt mines while you're at it?

What a nation of toddlers we've become -- if I can say so without insulting toddlers. If it's now thought oppressive not to provide enough government cash to protect somebody from the horrors of attending a two-year college, then man, are we in deep Karo.

What's next on the civil rights agenda? Citizen brigades organized to protest inadequate hand moisturizer in Comet? Pelting police with bottles of Perrier because off-brand amaretto made it into somebody's petits fours? Rioting when the Beluga caviar you ordered turns out to be mere Sevruga?

Oh, the humanity!

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