Belaboring the Obvious

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Herbert gets it right today...

... as far as he goes.

Herbert does make the point that infrastructure keeps commerce going, that Europe still understands this, and that the U.S. no longer does. But, there's a lot unsaid in his article about how this state of affairs came to pass.

First, a significant amount of the infrastructure that we've just patched together for decades was built in the 1930s, by the WPA and the CCC. It takes some looking to see it today, but during the Great Depression, the CCC built more than 650,000 miles of roads out of what were previously just dirt cart-paths. The building in which I worked as a Christmas temp in 1965 for the post office was built by the WPA in the `30s as a courthouse, and was converted to a post office annex in the early `50s. That building continued to be used for that purpose until the early `70s. One can still find along the Lake Michigan shoreline permanent surveyor's markers which were placed by the WPA for the Coast & Geodetic Survey. When I worked for a municipality in Michigan in the `70s, all the master water and sewer maps had first been done by the WPA, starting in 1934, painstakingly drawn in ink on starched linen.

Almost everywhere one goes, there's evidence of what the WPA and CCC did during the `30s, even if one ignores the huge projects, such as the expansion of Philadelphia's first airport, the Tennessee Valley Authority and urban renewal in major cities such as New York. These were projects that were more strong-back-ready than shovel-ready. If you could do physical labor, there were plenty of ways to put you to work, and in ways that had lasting benefit, benefits that carried through the Depression and WWII and well into the post-war economic expansion. In a sense, we've been coasting on the infrastructure developed during that time.

Conservatives rail against any notion of central planning, and in the last thirty or so years, the entire notion of national central planning has been discarded in favor of "free market" principles, that corporations know best and that tax cuts can better accomplish those ends, a remarkably self-serving attitude on the part of a corporate elite whose growth in the `50s and `60s depended largely upon federally-planned and -executed infrastructure improvements.

With the dissolution of federal revenue-sharing to the states, infrastructure spending has devolved into a system of pork-barrel projects and earmarks at the Congressional district level, a hodge-podge driven by local politics and cronyism that in no way serves national needs. Forgotten by fiscal conservatives is the simple fact that the arguably three single largest surges in infrastructure and industrial growth in the country's history were managed at the federal level--the WPA/CCC/TVA infrastructure/jobs programs, WWII arms production, and the Eisenhower-era interstate highway system. All were, for the objectives of their times, unqualified successes (the implications of huge dams for power production, or the effects that the highway system had on automobile use, fuel consumption and air pollution were largely unanticipated, and certainly weren't contrary to the interests of the corporate giants which benefitted from that infrastructure).

All, however, did not make huge profits for corporations, and no one corporation or consortium of corporations could have managed any of those tasks--they were simply too large and ambitious. Now that the costs of replacing that aging infrastructure are coming due, the cities and states, starved by thirty years of tax cuts and tax-abatements-for-jobs extortions by corporations, are seriously considering turning over infrastructure to those very same corporations that have systematically starved them. In the Chicago area alone, formerly low-cost access roads are now corporately-controlled toll roads, and the city of Chicago is at this moment considering turning over its public water system--built and funded over tens of decades at public expense for public benefit--to private control because it no longer has the revenues to maintain that system. That's what the multinational corporations do to third-world countries. Is Chicago going to send out its police to quell the riots caused by skyrocketing water bills, as happened in Cochabamba when Bolivia sold its water system to a subsidiary of Bechtel? Is Chicago going to have to create laws--due to corporate demands--that make collecting rainwater illegal because it might hinder corporate profits, as happened in Bolivia?

No, what Herbert forgot to put plainly front-and-center is that there's been a war going on for thirty years, at least, a war waged by corporations against the public commonwealth and the means of maintaining it. The corporate mind thinks, "why shouldn't we be able to buy public infrastructure at fire-sale prices and then profit from it?"

The question everyone else should be asking is "why the hell should we let them?"


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