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December 7, 2011

The four-way-stop solution

My daily commute takes me through the four-way stop at the intersection of Cannons Lane and Pee Wee Reese Road. I once dreaded this intersection because it tends to back up during rush hour. But I grew to appreciate the poetry of this spot, which marries the pastoral grandeur of Seneca Park with the frenetic ballet of the urban rat race.

If you’re stuck in traffic and you’re not focused on your apps, you might be treated to the sight of children playing soccer, runners, walkers or animated Bluetooth talkers who are wildly gesticulating in a way that heretofore would have gotten them locked up in an asylum. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of horses at Rock Creek Riding Club. And the park is an ideal place to keep current on yoga-pant fashion trends.

Eye candy aside, the traffic pattern at four-way stops seems elegant and eminently democratic. The rules are simple and fair: When it’s your turn, you go. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, black or white, straight or gay, ugly or pretty, smart or a UK fan — when it’s your turn, you go. Rich, attractive, white people don’t get to skip to the front of the line like they do in most of America.

Naturally, some people break the rules. Occasionally, aggressive drivers dart through the intersection before it’s their turn. If their driving habits mirror their ideology, these are probably libertarians. Some drivers linger beyond their turn and wave along others, which disturbs the integrity of the system. These are probably communists. But the rest of us — the 99 percent — patiently wait our turn and, when it comes, we go.

This was never the way our government was designed to work. Even the Founding Fathers knew some of us were more privileged than the rest of us. But it’s still worth emulating. When we share the intersection, we all get where we’re going. When we don’t, there is high blood pressure.

Four-way stops are also cost-effective, which appeals to my German half. It mystifies me that traffic lights cost cities hundreds of thousands of dollars per intersection, even though they seem to be merely a combination of flashlights and timers, both of which you can buy at a hardware store for 10 bucks.

And at a four-way stop, it’s clearer than anywhere else what a spectacular failure the deficit-reduction “super-committee” was. Everybody who’s ever been through a four-way stop (with the possible exception of Mitch McConnell) knows there is a simple solution to our economic woes: We have to share the sacrifice if we’re going to survive.

Ultimately, America must stop the rich from cheating. The rich own the Republicans and the Republicans will always serve their rich masters. Unfortunately, this is also true of Democrats. Corporations and their lobbyists write our laws and tilt our economy in their favor. But they have over-reached. There is no denying that millionaires have a role to play in solving this crisis. Simple math says that we could raise billions of dollars and create 1 million new jobs if we would only round up the million richest Americans and pay workers to turn them upside down and shake the loose change out of their pockets.

But there must also be cuts, and most of us on the left realize this. There will be a lot of squabbling over the details, but we have known for decades that Social Security, Medicare and our irrational military budget were not sustainable. And who doesn’t really think there is waste in both federal and state government? Give us our medicine, already (ideally in the form of Xanax, please)! Give us our four-way stop.

When my daughter and I stopped at an Occupy camp in another city at Thanksgiving, we overheard a young man yell out, “Fuck the government!” It broke my heart a little bit, which caught me by surprise. I understand his cynicism and frustration, but, despite my considerable bellyaching about the government — and as much as I appreciate the pressure the Occupy protestors are putting on the system — I’m just not an anarchist at heart.

And I also believe that, even though corporate greed is perhaps capitalism’s biggest failure, the end of corporations isn’t the answer. Maybe our society really has to collapse to emerge from the mess we’re in, but I still believe there’s a four-way-stop solution: If we make reasonable spending cuts and raise revenue responsibly, we can save all of us.