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Drowning in a tide of problems

I feel like we’re drowning: in oil, in debt, even in (gulp) opinion. I give you these examples: BP and the Gulf of Mexico; Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the Baltimore budget, and this column.

As to the oil, I’ve been having this daymare: I’m driving my gasoline-efficient car. I feel oil rising around me, engulfing me so to speak. I am the problem.

I could have made a more meaningful contribution to the environment by spending a little more for my car. It would have been a weak gesture. But I didn’t do that.

I could have started riding my bicycle. I could have chosen to use public transportation. But no, I couldn’t do that. I need my car for work. I need my mobility.

If everyone invokes some version of vocational necessity, our addiction to oil continues. This failure to break through the rationalizations creates the market for British Petroleum. BP and its cousins are our dealers. They know we’re out here on the corner waiting for them to find more of what we crave.

I feel the sickening goo rising up and up. Then I imagine a second phase, a layer of the less toxic dispersant, the substance whose real effect on the gulf and its surrounding wetlands and sea creatures is basically unknown.

Fouling our nest

We’re 1,500 miles away from the gulf, but, if we’re thinking at all, we can almost feel the oil-fouled water lapping at our feet. It’s more than a dream. We know it’s headed for the loop current — thence on to the Florida Keys, Hilton Head, Ocean City.

Have we ever felt more keenly the warning that “We’re all in it together”? The immediate damage is elsewhere, but there’s no refuge.

And we’re drowning. We’re helpless. We can’t shut down the gusher. The government says BP is all we’ve got.

Public officials fume and posture and virtually cry out in anger and frustration.

A flotilla of shrimp boats heads out, over-matched. Oil-soaked pelicans are the sad, pathetic proof. Did anyone really think containment booms would contain? We were dreaming. We took intolerable risks. We are paying with the tidal wetlands, the sea creatures and a way of life.

And, it’s not just oil that fouls our nest.

Wall Street seems to be tanking yet again.

Household budgets don’t balance. I got a haircut the other day and learned that the cost had gone up.

“Everything’s going up,” I say, handing over the cash.

“Except our salaries,” says the receptionist.

No painless tax increases

And Baltimore’s Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake wants something painless to tax.

She’s drowning too — in the debt she inherited. She’s got a $121 million budget gap.  There’s nowhere to turn.

Where does she look for answers? She’s already zeroed-out recreation centers for the elderly. Nothing is sacred.

The city’s property tax, which should be sufficient to cover costs, is higher, way higher, than that of any surrounding county. Baltimore is drowning in poor people, people who don’t pay their share of taxes. They can’t. They’re poor. The mayor searches for alternatives. How about a tax on bottles? We drink too much soda anyway. Maybe the bottle tax has a health benefit.

An expensive ad campaign accuses her of increasing the cost of “groceries.” Please. We’re not talking fruits and vegetables or even milk.

The city council weighs in, threatening to shelve the proposal. The mayor says she may have to lay off 600 city employees. The council president says it’s cruel to suggest something that may not actually happen. He and his colleagues suggest an alternative that doesn’t come close to filling the gap.

So, like many other government leaders (local and state), Rawlings-Blake scratches around for new revenue sources. What about nonprofits? Hospitals, churches, helping agencies. They may be paying something but they’re hurting too. They’re pushing back against any talk of taxing them.

And there’s no bailout. We’re not too big to drown.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.