Opinion: I’ve been thinking about potholes. National Party transport policy speakers have been making quite a noise about how many there are, how slowly they are repaired and how much they cost. Potholes seem to be an unavoidable election issue.

The term “pothole” itself is of uncertain origin. There are some inventive versions, the most popular dating back centuries to an apparent proclivity of artisans to extract clay from broken sections of Roman paved roads to make pots. That seems a retrofit explanation to me when paved roads just do break up, leaving gaps which annoy travellers, and that such gaps or holes can take on a shape that resembles a pot of some kind.

Forget potholes – fix the funding holes in aged care
How misinformation has been used to fight road improvements
The perilous state of the Far North’s roads

If you are up for disappearing down a rabbit hole (deeper and more treacherous than the simple pot version) you will find that the really hard philosophical question is about the “hole” rather than the descriptive “pot”. A recent contribution to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy addresses this issue in some depth, including the concept that holes do not exist but are merely an aspect of holed objects.

I’m not sure Simeon Brown has given this matter the depth of thought required to really understand it but I can help him with references if he wishes. I can’t find anything in Waka Kotahi publications about this either. My very lay version of all this literature is that the problem is not the hole, it is the road.

There is no doubt potholes are irritating when you hit one. They are also irritating when they are being fixed (unless you own the area orange cone franchise). But if you are going to have roads (a fair bet in my lifetime) you will have need for repairs, ie potholes.

The aim cannot be to have no potholes or road repairs. That would require so much spending there would be none left for other economic activity. That would leave no need to drive on the road anyway. The aim should be to have the optimal amount of potholes – the number of potholes road users would be prepared to pay for the repair of.

(Note that more roads, all else being equal including proportionate usage, may mean more potholes in total and fewer roads mean fewer potholes. But I do not think the anti-pothole campaigners will entertain the idea of fewer roads or less usage of roads to achieve their objective.)

You can see why incumbent governments struggle. They do not inhabit a world in which we can have the amount of potholes we want (very few or none) without paying to avoid them (other than by not having roads or some other greater pain). For aspiring governments the pothole debate is attractive only so long as you keep losing elections.

In this sense the pothole is a good symbol how of this election is proceeding. There are itches all around the body politic that demand scratching. In the moment we are far more aware of them than we are of the tumour quietly growing inside, the virus caught but not yet symptomatic, the vehicle crash that awaits around the corner, the fire about to engulf our home. The snake oil retailers draw attention to the easy solutions to the surface and immediate issues and we are often only too willing to reward them for it.

At the level of symbols (and only that, roads are far from our biggest issue) the best thing for a government to do is to focus on the road not the potholes, the doughnut not the hole, the shirt not the button holes (insert your own hole analogy). No need to go full philosopher and deny the holes even exist.

No one believes you can fix them all instantly and without cost anyway. You do not even have to be the only ones with answers to the holes in our communities. What you must do is create a sense that it does make sense. That our future is neither bleak nor random. That we can work together on that future.

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