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Civitas

The Village

When I was in graduate school, one of my classmates, who had an undergrad sociology degree, told us about this village in Romania he had to visit and study [1]. The village, somewhere in the hilly Sub-Carpathian region was able to preserve its wealth during the communist years. People had orchard gardens surrounding their houses that couldn’t be nationalized; they sold fruits in the free farmer markets for generations and made a decent profit for all those years. Some were also shepherds, another private enterprise that prospered in spite of the communism, as no one cared to track the growing herds as they moved from lower to higher pastures and back, part of the traditional transhumance customs.The prosperity of the inhabitants of that village was apparent in the size and quality of their homes, the richness of furnishing and decorations inside, their ability to develop their individual septic sewage systems. From this point of view, it was as five decades of communism never happened. Yet, something was lost – their civic conscience. The roads between houses were crumbling in disrepairs, the common grounds were abandoned to weeds and wild vegetation, the common forest resources were often abused and whilst each afforded and individual septic system, it never crossed their minds that a systems of aqueducts and sewers would’ve been more efficient.

The Country

The United State reminds me of that village. Pennsylvania reminds me of that village. The Pittsburgh Urban area reminds me of that village.

The United States economy, even after the recession, still justifies the greatest expectations for individual prosperity. But when it comes to civic wealth, or common wealth, the United States is constantly sliding down in what it has to offer to its citizens.  As in that village, Americans are richer or potentially richer than every other nation. Yet the roadways are crumbling, the education system is underfunded, public transit services are shrinking since the sixties, public libraries close doors and millions of people cannot afford the most basic healthcare services.

Now I do not know how to explain the state of facts – no place in the United States suffered through five decades of that totalitarian regime called communism. But perhaps is the opposition, the fear of a communist like regime that made people to reassert their individualities to the point that they forgot they are all residents of the same Civitas. [2]

And if civitas sounds foreign , or old and forgotten, let’s try Commonwealth – common wealth. This principle of commonwealth does not try to make the rich people poorer, but stresses a well known historical fact. When only a few individuals can enjoy a region’s wealth, its resources and the products of the community’s hard work, their prosperity will not last long. Because the handful of wealthy people will drain those resources and they will force everybody else to revolt or leave.[3] Plus is the Christian thing to do.[4]

The State

Returning to Pennsylvania, to Western Pennsylvania to be more precise – the value of common wealth and the needs for a civic conscience became even clearer in the light of the last budget cuts. As the newly elected state governor bragged about the potential wealth from shale gas extractions he also started to cut down funds for all civic programs and projects.

Targets:

State colleges and public schools. The impact is not limited to education quality for children from families with low and middle class incomes. As the state university with the largest campus in Pittsburgh saw its budget cut in half started to evaluate those expenses that can be cut. One expense is its yearly contribution to the local provider of public transportation services, the Port Authority of Allegheny County in exchange for free rides for its students and employees.[5]

The Port Authority, which saw its own funding shrink during the last years, struggles to avoid crippling cuts without going over budget. Hopes to see more funding coming its way are low, the whole transportation sector suffers from lack of funding. And that means not just fewer buses or fewer new roads, but also unsafe bridges and less work for civil engineering and contractors, therefore less business opportunities for local small businesses. [6]

Of course the state government has to deal with a billion dollar budget shortfall. Of course they have to cut down expenses. Of course they believe that taxing shale gas extraction to fund public transportation, state colleges, roads, bridges etc.  is bad for business. They tell us that taxing shale gas extraction – as they have told themselves – will lead investors to lose their interest in exploring this new resource of wealth. Even if I would not doubt their statement, how does keeping the shale gas business justify the loss of bus driver jobs, tuition paying students and research possibilities, local civil engineering and contracting businesses?

Because the Commonwealth, Civitas is not about welfare as Temporary Assistance For Needy Families and Dependents. It is about the subtle foundations, the framework on which the wealth of the community is built. And a wealthy community holds more possibilities for individual wealth.

Deficit Causes

One can blame it on the high costs or retirement benefits for public transportation and state employees. One can blame it on the recession. One can also blame it on the misadministration of wealth by the state and local governments and argue that, for this reason, the wealth should stay in the hands of those who are able to exploit it. Which could very well be, and in fact some actually are out of state companies, out of state investors or out of state workers exploiting the local resources, i.e. shale gas. Companies, investors and workers who have no interest to invest in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

And  no one will be wrong, all of the above are justifiable explanations. But no one will be right either. Because the root of our problems lays on the fact that we had lost our civic conscience, we had somehow forgotten that we are all citizens of the same Civitas.

This has to be the correct explanation, lest is no other way for me to understand why the wrong solutions are sought in all the wrong places.

Notes:

 [1] I cannot recall the name of the village. I can recall the name of my classmate in case you want to track him down and verify the authenticity of the story

[2] Civitas. Civitates: « concilium coetusque hominum jure sociati « (Cicero, Somm.Scip. ) =a political community sovereign and independent.  Linguistic root for the word “civic”= regarding that community.Source: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Civitas.html

[3]That is something even roman emperors knew when they gave free corn to the residents of the City.

[4]” Surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community.” Andrew Carnegie

[5] http://bit.ly/gOWUmf

[6] http://www.bizjournals.com/pittsburgh/print-edition/2011/04/15/engineers-prep-for-bridge-funding-drop.html?ana=fbk

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