Friday, July 18, 2008


Earlier this year I had the remarkable experience of hiking for a few days in Pinnacles National Monument in central California. The dramatic rock outcroppings that give the park its name are simply breathtaking and the views indescribable.

I walked along paths originally laid out by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s – the CCC Boys – and by the looks of things in the rest of the park that was about the last time the place had any serious Federal attention. The facilities are shabby and understaffed, an insult really to the magnificence of the place itself.

Pinnacles provides an object lesson in what has happened to the nation’s public infrastructure everywhere. While levees are failing, bridges are collapsing, roads are buckling, sewer systems are overflowing, schools are crumbling, and national parks hold themselves together with duct tape, it is time to ask how the United States came to be a nation literally falling apart.

Pinnacles was created early in the 20th century during the Progressive era. It was developed more fully during the New Deal. As such, it was a small piece of a much larger phenomenon in America -- building a whole variety of vital public infrastructures: paved roads and public transit systems; water, electric and gas lines; public schools and public parks. Some of this was built by the private sector; much of it was built publicly.

Building that infrastructure occupied Americans into the 1960s, and it was essential to the growth of the American economy and the American middle class in those years. Then we stopped building it, we skimped on maintaining it, and we took it all for granted. Sure, we deluded ourselves, the tap water would always be clean, the potholes would always get fixed, and our school facilities probably didn’t need to be updated after all.

We fell into this complacency in part because by the 1970s politicians, most of them Republicans, began to preach an alternative economic reality. The private market would take care of everything if only we would unleash its power by curtailing regulation and slashing taxes. Taxes and regulation, the free-market fundamentalists thundered, were the evils of our society. Reduce one and eliminate the other, and we will enter the economic promised land.

What many called the “Reagan Revolution” in our economy never really worked, of course. Federal budget deficits grew, thanks largely to those tax cuts and to military spending (Reagan famously told his staff that defense spending shouldn’t really be considered part of the each annual budget), the national debt exploded and annual economic growth during Reagan’s term was lower than during Carter’s. Meanwhile, wealth was transferred to the wealthy, middle class wages stagnated, and poverty rates reached levels not seen since the Depression. Some revolution.

And it turns out that this revolution didn’t do much for the infrastructure we all count on either. The free market turns out not to be very good at investing in roads and airports, at providing public education, or at keeping the water clean. Nor has it proved very good at investing in the kinds of new technology that will position the United States for a post-oil world. Fuel efficient cars, wind turbines and the next generation solar arrays are coming from Europe, not from the United States. Public investment is an investment in our economic future. One has only to travel to the emerging nations of Asia to see that.

The free marketeers of the Reagan generation forgot the first rule of economics: you get what you pay for. Over the last thirty years, as we have responded to every social issue with another round of tax cuts, we haven’t paid for our infrastructure. Now the sad results of that disinvestment are regularly front page news.

Despite all the evidence that we need massive investment in our public infrastructure, however, some politicians – John McCain first and foremost - continue to promise the same tired economic policies that got us into this mess in the first place.

In the end it turns out that the free market fundamentalism of the last thirty years has essentially amounted to a combination of credit card spending and deferred maintenance. The war in Iraq, being paid for entirely by the national credit card, may cost us over one trillion dollars, and according to one estimate it will cost us about the same to repair our infrastructure.

Rebuilding our essential public infrastructure means we have to reorient our economic policies toward public investment, and we must stop pretending that one more tax cut will make our shared problems go away. The CCC Boys did something magnificent for their generation. It is our turn to do the same.