Rollin’ on the [federally flood-controlled] river

If you want to travel by boat, or ship grain by barge on the Mississippi River, you’re going to encounter locks and dams. On a recent cruise along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, we paused five times, as our steamboat made its way through the locks that make river navigation possible. Locks and dams—as you may remember from fifth grade–work together: Dams allow river vessels to use a series of locks to “step” up or down the river from one water level to another.

But what some people on the boat didn’t seem to know is who pays for those locks and dams. On our steamboat cruise, as we passed through a lock in Newburgh, Indiana, I struck up a conversation with one of the off-duty river pilots. I said something about how amazing the whole flood-control system and navigation system is, how important it is to the American economy, and how it wouldn’t be possible without the federal government.

“Oh, no,” said the pilot. “These locks and dams are built by engineers, not the government.”

“Uh, oh,” I thought. “Does he really not know how it works?” So, of course, I felt compelled to enlighten him.

“Actually,” I said, “the whole thing is funded by the federal government. The engineers may work for private companies, but they get paid by the federal government.

“No,” he replied. “It’s individual people paying taxes who pay for all of this.”

Exasperation! At this point, I was beginning to realize that the facts were irrelevant. But I soldiered on, trying to remind him that individuals pay taxes to the federal government, whose role it is to do the big things that individuals can’t do themselves and that benefit the general good.

He looked at me as though he thought I was an idiot. I returned the look, and the conversation ended.

I walked away with the sad and infuriating realization that even people who should know better don’t get the importance of the federal government in their everyday lives—and in the river pilot’s case, careers. As we traveled along the rivers, many federally funded necessities were obvious: the dams that help control the flooding that jeopardizes farmers’ fields and the economic well-being of low-lying towns; the locks that make it possible for coal- and grain-laden barges to negotiate the varying river depths; the bridges that enhance interstate commerce and convenient travel; the roads and highways.

As we paddle-wheeled our way upstream on the Ohio, in 100+ degree temperatures, much mention was made of the devastating drought in the Midwest. At least one tour guide noted that many farmers in the area were applying for federal crop insurance to cover their losses.

As we were traveling in polite company, conversations among passengers pretty much stayed away from religion and politics. But looking around the deck and the elegantly excessive dining room, and knowing how much this journey cost, I made some assumptions about the political leanings of those around me. I guessed conservative. And I wondered how many of the folks on the boat–while enjoying the view and the infrastructure that makes the trip possible—if asked about the role of government in America would say that government is the problem and that we should have less of it.