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<nettime> Futur(Ob)ama
Ryan Griffis on Wed, 19 Nov 2008 22:02:34 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Futur(Ob)ama

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

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