Friday, July 3, 2009

America an Undeveloping Nation?

As I contemplated Obama’s apparent endorsement of a plan to bulldoze fallow portions of rustbelt cities like Flint, Michigan, I began considering America’s larger economic and infrastructure dilemmas. By now, we are familiar with that nasty term ‘rustbelt’, especially us here in Upstate NY. However, looking around the country, at California’s economic crisis, at our inability to rebuild New Orleans, or just at the general dysfunction that hinders our nation’s ability to maintain a minimal infrastructure and provide basic services such as public transit and healthcare, which other developed countries provide as a rule, I realized, that the ‘rustbelt’ phenomenon wasn’t merely limited to places like Flint, MI, Youngstown, OH and Upstate, New York. Our entire country has become a ‘rustbelt’, warranting an entirely new classification to better clarify our standing in the world. ‘Undeveloping nation’ seems to capture it.

The idea of bulldozing deteriorating urban neighborhoods, which at first seems unthinkable, begins to seem more and more like our only option. If we really have so little vision for our own future and can not come up with sustainable uses for our historic industrial cities and the factories that made this country great, then a wrecking ball is perhaps a suitable and appropriate fate. But why limit this logic to the Flint, Michigan’s and Gary, Indiana’s of America? Why not have the whole nation simply cut it’s losses and ‘shrink to survive’?

Take the stimulus bill for example. The problem with Obama’s stimulus package is not whether it’s too big or too small to make a dent in America’s crumbling infrastructure and economic recession (which it is by far). Nor is it an issue of bad fiscal policy leading us to dangerous and reckless state interventionism, an argument that the Republicans are betting it all on. The problem as I see it is that spending trillions of dollars to maintain an infrastructure that was originally put in place to accommodate a much larger and growing economy is inherently a losing proposition. Few want to admit it, but the dams, levees, bridges and aqueducts that were built largely in the first half of the 20th Century, are outsized relics of an America whose best days were just ahead.

Everybody’s favorite new word seems to be ‘infrastructure’, as if throwing money at our ‘infrastructure’ will magically lift us out of recession and save us all. But the problem is not that we have neglected our infrastructure, which we certainly have, it is that the costs of maintaining that infrastructure are very simply going to outpace the amount of wealth being generated by our economy. Sadly, the degree to which Americans will be forced to ‘re-adjust’ to a lower standard of living and lower level of services has yet to be fully appreciated.

What’s worse, this is not just about spending enough money to meet our current and future needs. In the very near future, this outsized infrastructure will begin to present serious risks for future generations. Not only will we not have the money to maintain our levees, dams, landfills and nuclear power plants, but we may not have the money to safely decommission them either. With states and cities flat broke there will be no easy answers as to how best to deal with all those unstable, crumbling structures looming over us like giant, rust-covered swords of Damocles.

I can seriously imagine that ten to twenty years from now this country might be so broke and dysfunctional that major pieces of infrastructure like our own Gilboa Dam will essentially be abandoned and left to rot, with no one standing up to claim responsibility for them. This leads me to the conclusion that our smartest solution to the infrastructure problem may not be to sure-up or build more of it, but to decommission and safely dismantle some of these structures and systems while we still have the resources and know-how to do so.

For example, we might consider closing down some bridges and sections of highways. We’ll never be able to fix them all and it’s only a matter of time before they start collapsing and killing people. Of course this may not be necessary when increases in gas prices begin to force a majority of drivers off the roads for good. Perhaps we should also start shutting down the airports. Pilot salaries start lower than those of a Wal-Mart cashier, and we are outsourcing all the mechanical work. The airlines can only maintain existing standards with less and less for so long until the planes start falling out of the sky.

Throughout the U.S., many cities should simply be abandoned. New Orleans is a good example. It is doubtful that we can sure up those levees, and even if we did, complacency would set in in a few years and insure that they once again fell prey to neglect and budget cuts. New York City’s bridges and tunnels are also a major liability. They were all built at least over fifty years ago and are already showing their age. Yet, America will never again see the kind of wealth that was tapped to build these transportation systems in the first half of the 20th Century. Close them down now before the next disaster occurs and kills hundreds of people.

There’s no point in denying the inevitable. We should accept the writing on the crumbling wall. America is on its way to becoming a third world nation. Over the past 25 years, America has handed it’s economic dominance to China and submitted to a corporate-dominated laissez-faire economic orthodoxy that disparaged government-involvement in the economy as ‘socialistic’ and worshipped at the altar of so-called ‘free trade’. Conservative republicans, largely working in concert with democrats have strangled public education, abandoned our neediest cities, helped ship America’s manufacturing base overseas and used their control of the government to prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that government couldn’t do anything right. They have heaped unending abuse on the public sector while encouraging the nation to puts its faith in some infallible free market. The end result of this is either a race to the bottom, or a slow, inevitable decline.

As I see it, those are our two options. The first is to continue on our current path, letting the rich look for better countries in which to park their wealth and spending billions on a bloated military, all while denying the fact that we are fundamentally a nation of losers incapable of providing services and producing goods on par with the rest of the world. The second option is to accept that we are a nation of losers on our way down. We tax the rich at 75%, slash the military budget (who are we to be running the world anyway?), and run up the biggest tab with China that we can get away with. Then we take that money, give all Americans free health coverage, a free I-Phone, and a monthly tax rebate check. Tell everyone to move into their parents’ basement, play Guitar Hero for the next 25 years and just enjoy the ride down.

Our best hope is a few good decades before our freefall into barbarity and cannibalism.


Brennerable said...

Fascinatingly predictable. The pessimistic nihilism you draw out at the end of your piece is precisely the logical endpoint of modernity.

Yes, we really ought to slide into oblivion (according to your logic). However, you falsely understand that this decline and pessimistic attitudes are a result of the failure of capitalist greed. This is a rather tired Marxist approach to history. If you were really loyal to the thought of your intellectual mentor, you would be calling for a revolution of the Center Park proletariat, not for them to simply lay down and enjoy their stupor.

You do not realize that with your pessimistic nihilism you in fact push Marx to the conclusion that he himself never made it to. You are like a Marx who has turned his head to look back at the failures of the 20th century, has realized the weakness of his philosophy, and has turned to base hedonism so as to dull the pain. A predictable move given Marx's materialistic metaphysics. Yes, according to your understanding of the universe, we ought to give up and lounge in our comforts.

IF you had only said all this, at least you would have been consistent. However, you target capitalistic greed as the sole cause of such decline, when it is this greed (based upon the Protestant ethic and Calliclean/Darwinian morality) that causes not slow decline, but an incessant, immoral rat race.

In lamenting the triumph of capitalism over a more kind, caring socialism--and then blaming it for "decline" and advocating pessimistic hedonism--you mistakenly take the disease to be the tragically unused cure.

It is your socialistic, big-government philosophy that leads to the decline you have mentioned. You are lamenting the implementation of your own philosophy! This might be warranted if you had seen the light and changed your views, but your lamentations instead impute an entirely different philosophy.

What you ought to do is free yourself from this dichotomy. There is something called the "third way" between capitalism and socialism. It represents an alternative to choosing between the darwinian rat race and roman candle of socialism:

Charity in Truth.

Anonymous said...

WOW it a good thing Brennerable didnt go to college. At college when they say the sky is falling they mean it!

Anonymous said...

At college when they say the sky is falling they mean it!

Does finding charity in truth mean the sky is falling? I don't think so. Finding a little grace in our lives is a noble quest. It has to be better than the shit sandwich the whacko liberals are serving these days.

An optimistic nihilist said...

Hmm, since you find my writing so “fascinatingly predictable”, I was kinda just hoping you would respond for me. But I guess not.

For the sake of convenience, and not confusing you any further, let’s say that I am limited to viewing the problem in terms of the false dichotomy - between socialism and capitalism - that you suppose I am. Why then would I not be applauding Obama’s spending increases on infrastructure, green jobs, and healthcare as the panacea to the forty-year Republican assault on the public sector? Not having the answer, and not being able to see past your own limited perspectives, you simply move on down the list from one imagined epithet to another, in this case from Marxism to, whoo!, nihilism.

Surely, you can’t be accusing me of supporting nihilism and socialism at the same time. Even the characters in The Big Lebowski knew better. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of Marx’s materialist metaphysics, dude, at least that’s an ethos...

Actually, I find the problem to be one of physics not philosophy. As a civilization we are disastrously overextended and overreaching. We have consumed far beyond what our resources will allow (both in an ecological and economic sense) and our society has become increasingly unmanageable. Capitalist greed in and of itself is only one of our beast’s tentacles. When you combine it with our unjustified arrogance, social and economic illiteracy (in place of which we have been fed an incessant stream of vulgarized laissez-faire economics) and our withdrawal from the most minimal responsibilities of democratic citizenship, you begin to get a clearer picture of why this country isn’t working. This whole dialogue proves my point; two ridiculously overeducated tools bandying around esoteric concepts while 99.9% of Americans care only about fake tans, bling and cell phones.

Explain this to me: If we can’t walk down the sidewalk and text at the same time without falling into an uncovered manhole (this actually happened to a teenaged woman somewhere, I can’t remember where though) what the hell makes you think we can run the world, or even are own country, while texting and tweeting mindless drivel to our BFFs?

So let me say that I join with you in staunchly opposing socialism, as long as we’re clear that I mean the “kind, caring socialism” of which the only beneficiaries are companies like Goldman Sachs and A.I.G. That things like card check for unions and universal healthcare have essentially been taken off the table despite the strongest democratic party majorities in decades, should be a pretty big hint. In the United States, socialism is enjoyed only by our largest corporations and wealthiest oligarchs and this arrangement is apparently not up for discussion.

By the way, have you watched MTV or VH1 lately? We’re not sliding into oblivion, we’re fuckin’ break dancing into oblivion. And by the way again, the end of the post was actually meant to be ironic.

Ever read Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal? I think you might find it to be among the finest and most compelling arguments in support of cannibalism and infanticide ever written.

Brennerable said...

It is not the complexity of your ideas that confuses, but their incoherence. I don't pretend to know every policy you laud or decry: I haven't read most of your blog, and was replying to a specific post that was itself quite revealing about your political philosophy. And believe me, you yourself are the one who sets up the dichotomy (which is not false, you should know).

You seem to have read Marx, and therefore I don't understand why you cannot see nihilism at the end of the tunnel. Recall that Marx wrote his doctoral dissertation on Epicurus and Democritus(i think): he denies universals and anything beyond the material, aka "dialectical materialism." How can we not find that this devolves into nihilism in the long run? I suppose you could argue that one ought to labor for posterity...

You don't have a problem with materialism because it is "at least an ethos." I don't know if I agree. I agree with Irving Babbit: the real problem is not a lack of vision, but a "sham vision." Materialism is a sham, and a pernicious one.

Your paragraph on physics and philosophy is an excellent one, I definitely agree. I'd extend your conclusion further, though, and ask if we may be at a point where democracy is revealing itself to be a less desirable regime type. See my latest blog post on this issue, notably the problem of how representatives have adapted to the idiocy of the electorate. I also saw the story of the texting teen. Remember that the first philosopher, Thales, once fell in a hole and was mocked by "thracian maidens" for being out of touch with reality. He fell because he was gazing at the eternal and unchanging cosmos, contemplating the highest things. I wonder what this long island teen was contemplating!

You're clearly wrong on your diagnosis of the future of universal health care, though. Look at the new bill.

I must admit that I did not read the end as satire, although I do not think this is my fault. You have just spent a great deal of effort lamenting the current state and really show no "optimistic" tendencies at all. Why would you expect your pessimistic conclusion, then, to be read satirically? I'd be careful not to place yourself on the same level as Jonathan Swift, Sean.

Speaking of "Sean," who are you really? You call yourself "ridiculously overeducated." Do you believe your writing alone evinces this face? Where did you go, who did you study under?

awestruck said...

my stars! what great minds are here at work.

one who sees the world as an amusement park and the other who has yet to grow a funny bone.

Tina Fay said...

The take on the texting teen and the ancient philosopher is hysterical. I could do a whole show on that bit.

It's all Greek to Brenner said...

I’ll be careful not to place myself on the same level as Jonathan Swift if you’ll be careful not to place yourself on the same level as Irving Babbitt. I’m sure you can do a lot better than that.

The fact that you want to think of Marx when discussing the current crisis facing American capitalism is understandable given the fact that Marx understood better than many how the dynamics of capitalist accumulation would lead to periodic crises and thus contained within itself the seeds of its own demise. Remember too, that Marx understood how ‘unemployment’ is used as a tool by the owners of capital to extract ever larger profits out of a surplus population. Does this not lead to decline as global capitalism brings about a race to the bottom under the banner of free trade?

As for what’s at the end of the tunnel, I really don’t see the danger in a materialist philosophy devolving into nihilism UNLESS the materialists were right all along, in which case, the nihilism is long overdue. One could argue that if this were the case, it might lead societies to begin replacing existing norms and institutions whose value is largely instrumental (for purposes of social control and increasing profits) with alternative institutions whose value is intrinsic and connected to a more natural understanding of human needs (survival, cooperation, participation).

If materialism is a sham, then the enfeeblement of capitalist modes of production would not result in the cultural and political decadence that is currently pervading our society. But a materialist conception of history is not a sham, at least not entirely and the ‘base hedonism’ that you refer to, seems less like the last resort of a dejected Marxism and more like one of the last few driving engines of American capitalism, which is actually why I draw it out for satirical effect.

Now as for good old Thales, notwithstanding the fact that he was the first ever philosopher and that he was contemplating the mysteries of the eternal cosmos, the dude should’ve been looking where he was going. But that’s a somewhat different metaphor than the one about the texting girl.

Regarding my education, I could last be found at Cornell where I studied city planning NOT political science. Perhaps this accounts in part for whatever face you believe my writing evinces. Of course, this is no more a blog about city planning than it is a blog about political theory, just my casual take on the goings-on here in Schoharie County.

Skippy Gates said...

Well it appears that at least two twenty somethings stayed awake at college.There is some hope.

Brennerable said...

Well, I'm not going to monopolize this discussion anymore. I used up my one rebuttal. I am saddened (while not surprised), though, at how "college" seems to be mocked on this blog by anonymous locals. Given the mediocre set of PhDs (and lesser academics) that haunt the not-so-venerable halls of SUNY Cobleskill, though, I suppose one cannot blame these locals for the impression they have of "college." Only here would a doctor of physical education be chosen as the president. I wonder if his dissertation brought out a groundbreaking new technique for the instruction of dodgeball?

Anonymous said...

Typical left-wing elitist attitude. You, Sean and your ilk confuse education with intelligence. The terms cannot be used interchangeably. You guys are so much “smarter” than the rest of us, I just feel blessed to be able to listen to you on this blog. You guys know SO MUCH MORE that I ever will, please help this country out of the hole that “the chosen one” and his crew of misfit Czars are digging for America. Look how well they did with the CARS program. (4 month program halted after 3 days!! they did pretty good figuring on that one!) Health care is next? We are in big trouble…and the current administration is "
well educated but clueless. If they continue to let ideology trump common sense, we, as a nation, are doomed…

Prof Dumbledorph said...

come on! You're defending those morons up at the college? They're the real elitists, strutting around this small town like spring peacocks. Give Brennerable credit for giving them some perspective, because they sorely need it...everything is relative and everyone is an elitist. the bum in the box looks down on the bum on the bench.

Anonymous said...

let it all go down the craper now, today. the strong and intelligent will survive, the meek and sheep shal perish. Its all in the history books, it has happened before, it will happen again. enough of this artificial sustaining of disfunctional life and missery. Let's clear the slate and start from scratch.