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.