Broken Windows

Last night I took the WES rail from where I work in Tualatin to Beaverton in order to attend a Night To Be Much Observed dinner in that area of what might be termed “West Portland.” When I got to the station, I kept trying to pay for a ticket, but the machine was broken, and in talking to the other people there the machine had been broken for some time without being fixed. It would seem strange that a public transportation system like Portland’s Tri-Met that had a budget shortfall to the extent that they do would be blase and unconcerned about people riding their trains without paying not because they were trying to skip fares but because the ticket machines were broken. One would think that there would be daily reports that would tell someone with fiscal oversight responsibilities that the machine had not made any money that day, and so it was probably out of service, especially if days turned into weeks and months without any money from a given machine. Under such circumstances it would appear to pay to either fix the machine (especially if there is only one fare machine, as there is in Tualatin) or replace it with a better machine that did not break down so often.

The book Economics In One Lesson, even if it is a bit tiresome and repetitive in its approach, makes the point persuasively and plainly that when people celebrate money going into repairing broken windows, that their celebration masks the great opportunity costs that result from a diversion of useful capital investment into repairs. Of course, companies themselves may not always be good about making sound investments (which is why there is a preference for capital investments than salaries, which are slandered and libeled as overhead rather than being seen as investment in human capital, which is of infinitely greater value than mere machinery). Even so, spending money on investment in a better future is a wiser course than diverting resources and attention to what is broken, even if it is better to repair what is broken than simply to cast it aside altogether.

This world is full of broken windows. Often these broken windows receive a great deal of attention because they are open and obvious, and they often disguise greater problems. In some cases, a broken window can be a superficial problem that is easy to fix and that is viewed negatively because it is relatively obvious to notice, without the need for others to look into matters or people in greater depth. On the other hand, people tend to reason that if superficial matters cannot be taken care of effectively that there is no chance that deeper matters could be good, since it is easier to manage images than to ensure deeper quality, and where superficial attractiveness is lacking most people will not bother to look into people or institutions in greater depth or with a desire to understand whether surface impressions are accurate or not.

In other cases, though, peoeple behave in ways that show a marked lack of wisdom in celebrating broken windows because of their supposed benefits, not recognizing the costs that are hidden. Many sins in our world result from the brokenness of individuals, and rather than celebrating that brokenness and desiring that it should be treated as equal with wholeness and proper conduct, we ought to lament that brokenness, to do our best to repair it, and to (even more so) work to prevent those factors that lead people to be broken in the first place. Sadly, we celebrate what we should abhor, and seek to legitimize what we should strive to eradicate through prevention, overcoming, and love. We are not a very wise world, though, and seldom are we guided by what ought to be. So until we change our way of behaving, we can expend plenty more broken windows, which we celebrate to our own peril, knowing that the evil that would break something would have no problems breaking everything else that it can get its hands on.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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