Thank-you-Ma’am

Posted Nov. 01, 2009, at 6:29 p.m.

Watch carefully, as you hike a Maine trail or drive along a dirt road, and you may spot a ridge or hollow in a downhill stretch that diverts runoff water to prevent erosion. Some call these bumps thank-you-ma’ams, from the old times when they caused carriage riders to bob or nod their heads.

One stretch of the Ocean Drive trail in Acadia National Park experienced a lot of erosion until park workmen rebuilt the pathway a few years ago and put in some thank-you-ma’ams to steer runoff water into a ditch alongside and finally off the trail toward the ocean.

Now a torrential rain has torn up another downhill section of the popular trail. The rushing water cut deep rivulets through the gravel pathway. Park trail specialists were quick to put up orange warning markers and signs that said: “Caution. Due to heavy rains, washouts are present.”

If weather permits, the park’s trail crew can be expected to rebuild that section before winter sets in. And they certainly will put in some thank-you-ma’ms to divert the runoff from the next rainstorm.

How sensible it would be if our government somehow managed to put in some thank-you-ma’ams to stem headlong rushes into war or into financial bubbles. The 2003 invasion of Iraq could well have used more advance warnings of a questionable conflict that still drags on and only now seems to be approaching a draw-down. The war in Afghanistan, widely justified as a response to the 2001 terrorist attacks, now has taken center stage and is at last undergoing the sort of careful study that should have preceded the Iraq war.

Financial bubbles, too, are being studied with a view to advance warning and prevention. The Obama administration has proposed a series of regulatory measures, especially aimed at limiting the huge salaries and bonuses that rewarded risk-taking and quick profits and helped lead to the recent crash and continuing recession.

But critics note that the White House proposals don’t deal effectively with the underlying casino atmosphere that fostered the meltdown. Congress must do better in establishing a new system that lets borrowers once more know who owns their mortgages and makes mysterious investment products such as derivatives subject to understandable and informed trading on exchanges.

Thank-you-ma’ams serve us well in Acadia National Park. Let’s have more of them in other parts of our lives.

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