Regular Budget Bites readers may have noted my absence the last two months. I just concluded a “mini-sabbatical” spent traveling and photographing in India. During my travels, I met wonderful people and saw beautiful things. That said, I’d also note that travel in the developing world provides a good reminder of the things that we take for granted and that our tax dollars support here at home.
First and most foremost, there’s clean water. Simply put, children in California don’t die from drinking the public water supply. Californians don’t consider the ability to turn the tap and drink what comes out a luxury. But for a large share of the world’s population, the local water supply is a toxic brew and travelers spend a considerable amount of energy trying to avoid contact with the local water supply.
Clean water allows us to eat green salads with abandon. The food in India was outstanding, but I found myself daydreaming about green salads during my long train rides across Northern India. Fear of the local water supply left me suspiciously eying the kitchen, the garnish on my plate, or balancing what looked good on the menu with considerations of what might result in midnight intestinal distress. In the US, in contrast, outbreaks of food-borne disease make headlines.
Then there’s clean air. Our tax dollars support environmental regulations that have made significant improvements in the quality of the air we breathe. In contrast, the air quality in Delhi made me appreciate that of Beijing, a city known for extreme pollution. We also don’t have to sleep under bed nets and/or take malaria prophylaxis on a regular basis to avoid insect-borne disease. Thank your local mosquito abatement district and public health officials for that one.
American visitors to India often note the prevalence of garbage – everywhere. On an afternoon walk through the “blue city” of Jodhpur, I stopped to buy a bottle of water to drink. I downed it next to the kiosk-sized store that I purchased it from, assuming I could return the empty bottle to the storekeeper for disposal. His response? Just toss it on the street (for the record, I carried it back to my hotel – who knows where it ended up after that). Another “luxury” brought to you courtesy of your tax dollars in action. And the list goes on.
While we lament the impact of budget cuts on the quality of our public schools, education is free and universal for both boys and girls through high school. Again, an unimaginable luxury in many parts of the world. California’s community colleges and public university systems still provide relatively affordable access to higher education, although our continued budget crisis threatens that as well.
In India as in much of the developing world, lack of basic health, education, and other public infrastructure stems from the historic prevalence of poverty and the lack of a functioning tax system. Estimates suggest that upwards of 90 percent of India’s economic activity takes place in the “informal”, and thus untaxed, sector. As the old saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. So next time you turn the tap to brush your teeth, say to yourself, there are my tax dollars in action.
I had a wonderful trip and would not trade my experiences for the world. Travel opens our eyes in so many ways. I’m looking forward to catching up and bringing my renewed appreciation for the importance of public services as we tackle the next round of California’s ongoing fiscal crisis.
— Jean Ross