Ryan — Mike Davis — Why Obama's Futurama Can Wait

Topic(s): 2008 Election | Comments Off on Ryan — Mike Davis — Why Obama's Futurama Can Wait

via idc
I haven’t seen anyone mention this take on an Obama admin’s potential
direction for the development of a new infrastructure investment
program (ala Public Works Administration) by Mike Davis (via Tom
Dispatch). But it presents some interesting challenges to the utopian
progressive notion that building new energy and transportation
networks are the priority.
best – ryan
Why Obama’s Futurama Can Wait
Schools and Hospitals Should Come First in Any Stimulus Package
By Mike Davis
America’s “Futurama” is defunct. The famous walk-through diorama
of a car-and-suburb world, imagineered by Norman Bel Geddes for
General Motors at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, has weathered into
a dreary emblem of our national backwardness. While GM bleeds to
death on a Detroit street corner, the steel-and-concrete Interstate
landscape built in the 1950s and 1960s is rapidly decaying into this
century’s equivalent of Victorian rubble.
As we wait in potholed gridlock for the next highway bridge to
collapse, the French, the Japanese, and now the Spanish blissfully
speed by us on their sci-fi trains. Within the next year or two,
Spain’s high-speed rail network will become the world’s largest, with
plans to cap construction in 2020 at an incredible 6,000 miles of
fast track. Meanwhile China has launched its first 200 mile-per-hour
prototype, and Saudi Arabia and Argentina are proceeding with the
construction of their own state-of-the-art systems. Of the larger
rich, industrial countries, only the United States has yet to build a
single mile of what constitutes the new global standard of
From day one, Barack Obama campaigned to redress this
infrastructure deficit through an ambitious program of public
investment: “For our economy, our safety, and our workers, we have to
rebuild America.” Originally he proposed to finance this spending by
ending the war in Iraq. Although his present commitments to a larger
military and an expanded war in Afghanistan seem to foreclose any
reconversion of the Pentagon budget, he continues to emphasize the
urgency of an Apollo-style program to modernize highways, ports, rail
transit, and power grids.
Public works, he also promises, can put the public back to work.
His “Economic Rescue Plan for the Middle Class” vows to “create 5
million new, high-wage jobs by investing in the renewable sources of
energy that will eliminate the oil we currently import from the
Middle East in 10 years, and we’ll create 2 million jobs by
rebuilding our crumbling roads, schools, and bridges.”
Of course, Bill Clinton entered the White House with a similarly
ambitious plan to rebuild the derelict national infrastructure, but
it was abandoned after Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin convinced the
new president that deficit reduction was the true national priority.
This time around, a much more powerful and desperate coalition of
interests is aligned to support the Keynesian shock-and-awe of major
public works.
Rolling Out the Dozers
Since the Paulson bailout plan has become so much expensive spit
in the wind, and with bond spreads now premised on the possibility of
double-digit unemployment over the next 18 months, massive new
federal spending has become a matter of sheer economic survival. As
innumerable influentials — from New York Times columnist David
Brooks to House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi — have argued, a crash
program of infrastructure repair and construction, likely to include
some investment in the new power grids required to bring more solar
and wind energy online, is the “win-win” approach that will garner
the quickest bipartisan support.
It has also been portrayed as the only lifeboat in the water for
the ordinary steerage passengers in our sinking economy. The emergent
Washington consensus seems to be that those five million green jobs
can actually come later (after we save GM’s shareholders), but that
infrastructure spending — if resolutely pushed through the lame-duck
Congress or adopted in Obama’s first 100 days — can begin to pump
money into the crucial construction and manufacturing sectors of the
economy before the end of next winter.
Unlike Comrade Bush’s “socialist” efforts to save Wall Street, a
public-works strategy for national recovery has had broad ideological
respectability from the days of Alexander Hamilton and Abraham
Lincoln to those of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. If
Democrats can brag about the proud heritage of the Works Progress
Administration and the Public Works Administration from the era of
the Great Depression (ah, those magnificent post offices and
parkways), there are still a few Republicans who remember the Golden
Age of interstate highway construction that commenced in the 1950s
with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Indeed since the national shame
of Hurricane Katrina, Americans have become outspokenly nostalgic
about competent federal governments and magnificent public achievements.
If one accepts the reasonable principle of supporting the new
president whenever he makes policy from the left or addresses basic
social needs, shouldn’t progressives be cheering the White House as
it rolls out the dozers, Cats, and big cranes? Aren’t high-speed mass
transit and clean energy the kind of noble priorities that best
reconcile big-bang stimulus with long-term public value?
The answer is: no, not at this stage of our national emergency.
I’m not an infrastructure-crisis denialist, but first things first.
We are now at a crash site, and our priority should be to save the
victims, not change the tires or repair the fender, much less build a
new car. In the triage situation that now confronts the president-
elect, keeping local schools and hospitals open should be the first
concern, rebuilding bridges and expanding ports would come next, and
rescuing bank shareholders at the very end of the line.
Inexorably, the budgets of schools, cities, and states are
sinking into insolvency on a scale comparable to the early 1930s. The
public-sector fiscal crisis — a vicious chain reaction of falling
property values, incomes, and sales — has been magnified by the
unexpectedly large exposure of local governments and transit agencies
to the Wall Street meltdown via complex capital lease-back
arrangements. Meanwhile on the demand side, the need for public
services explodes as even prudent burghers face foreclosure, not to
speak of the loss of pensions and medical coverage. Although the
public mega-deficits of California and New York may dominate
headlines, the essence of the crisis — from the suburbs of Anchorage
to the neighborhoods of West Philly — is its potential universality.
Certainly, in such a rich country, wind farms and schools should
never become a Sophie’s choice, but the criminal negligence of
Congress over the past months should alert us to the likelihood that
such a choice will be made — with disastrous results for both human
services and economic recovery.
Saving Schools and Hospitals
Congress naturally loves infrastructure because it rewards
manufacturers, shippers, and contractors who give large campaign
contributions, and because construction sites can be handsomely bill-
boarded with the names of proud sponsors. Powerful business lobbies
like the National Industrial Transportation League and the Coalition
for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors stand ready to grease the
wheels of their political allies. In addition, if the past century of
congressional pork-barrel methods is any precedent, infrastructural
spending typically resists coherent national planning or larger cost-
benefit analyses.
Yet saving (and expanding) core public employment is, hands-
down, the best Keynesian stimulus around. Federal investment in
education and healthcare gets incomparably more bang for the buck, if
jobs are the principal criterion, than expenditures on transportation
equipment or road repair.
For example, $50 million in federal aid during the Clinton
administration allowed Michigan schools to hire nearly 1,300 new
teachers. It is also the current operating budget of a Tennessee
school district made up of eight elementary schools, three middle
schools, and two high schools.
On the other hand, $50 million on the order book of a niche
public transit manufacturer generates only 200 jobs (plus, of course,
capital costs and profits). Road construction and bridge repair, also
very capital intensive, produce about the same modest, direct
employment effect.
One of the most likely targets for a Congressional stimulus plan
is light-rail construction. Street-car systems are enormously popular
with local governments, redevelopment agencies, and middle-class
commuters, but generally they operate less efficiently (per dollar
per passenger) than bus systems, and at least 40% of the capital
investment leaks overseas to German streetcar builders and Korean
steel companies.
Personally, I would love to commute via a sleek Euro-style
bullet train from my home in San Diego to my job in Riverside, 100
grueling freeway miles away, but I’ll take gridlock if the cost of
rationing federal expenditure is tolerating the closure of my kids’
school or increasing the wait in the local emergency room from two to
ten hours.
Obama, unlike his predecessor, has a bold vision, shared with
his powerful supporters in high-tech industries, of catching up with
the Spanish and Japanese, while redeeming America as the synonym for
modernity. Lots of new infrastructure will, however, become so many
bridges to nowhere (especially for our children) unless he and
Congress first save human-needs budgets and public-sector jobs.
A good start for progressive agitation on Obama’s left flank
would be to demand that his health-care reform and aid-to-education
proposals be brought front and center as preferential vehicles for
immediate macro-economic stimulus. Democrats should not forget that
the most brilliant and enduring accomplishment of the Kennedy-Johnson
era was Head Start, not the Apollo Program.
If, after saving kindergartens and county hospitals, we someday
hope to ride the fast train, then we need to rebuild the antiwar
movement on broader foundations. The president-elect’s original
proposal for funding domestic social investment through downsizing
the empire offers a brilliant starting point for basing economic
growth on an economic bill of rights (as advocated by Franklin
Roosevelt in 1944) instead of imperial over-reach and Pharaonic
levels of military waste.
Mike Davis is the author of In Praise of Barbarians: Essays
Against Empire (Haymarket Books, 2008) and Buda’s Wagon: A Brief
History of the Car Bomb (Verso, 2007). He is currently working on a
book about cities, poverty, and global change.
Copyright 2008 Mike Davis