The Populist Press Weblog

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Too Little, Too Late: Salvaging the Economy and Our Infrastructure

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by E. Smith-Jones

Too little, too late certainly characterizes the handling of the U.S. economy by our political leadership. As of this writing, late January ’08, the Bush administration and Democratic and Republican leaders in the U.S. House had reached an agreement on an economic stimulus plan. According to an Associated Press article, “individual taxpayers would get up to $600 in rebates, working couples $1,200 and those with children an additional $300 per child. In a key concession to Democrats, 35 million families who make at least $3,000 but don’t pay taxes would get $300 rebates. The rebates would phase out gradually for individuals whose adjusted gross income exceeds $75,000 and for couples with incomes above $150,000.”

 

This plan is a pathetic political ploy masquerading as a serious economic stimulus plan. Both parties should be ashamed of themselves for offering the American people peanuts to palliate the pain of an ailing economy. Although worth around $150 billion, it’s only slightly more than 25 percent of the $576 BILLION (through Fiscal Year 2007) that, according to the Congressional Research Service, has been pissed away on U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and “other counter terrorism operations.” (A PDF of the CRS report, “The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11,” updated in November 2007, can be downloaded at

http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RL33110.pdf .)

 

Sending each American a $300 to $600 check will do very little to improve this country’s faltering economy, which, depending upon which “expert” and TV talking head you choose to believe, already is mired in a recession or is careening towards one like a toboggan piloted by a meth addict. For instance, December 2007 unemployment edged up to 5 percent (from 4.7 percent in November; around a 6.3 increase in ONE month). The fact that unemployment rose during the all-important Christmas shopping season when normally it decreases because of temporary employment in the retail sector doesn’t bode well for the health of the economy.

 

There is a school of political thought that says any government handout has to be extended to the middle class in order to be supported by them. Supposedly many middle-class people resent having their hard-earned money given to poor people whom they think are disadvantaged merely because they don’t try hard enough to get ahead. The wisdom of the “if-you-keep-your-nose-to-the-grindstone, you’ll-get-ahead” belief is debatable. Putting that adise, it seems reasonable to wonder if individuals making UP to $75,000 and couples with incomes UP to $150,000 really need and deserve rebate checks from Uncle Sam? Even if they’re hurting, which many of them are because of the mortgage crisis, a one-time check of up to $1,200 is not going to be enough to stave off foreclosure.

 

These proposed rebates are an example of both parties conniving to buy middle-class votes cheaply–because they think that many voters will sell their allegiance for a relative pittance. They also represent another chronic failing of Washington: addressing the symptoms of a problem, in this case the economy, without dealing with the underlying structural problems that are dragging down that economy, one of which is a lack of serious investment in the infrastructure–roads, bridges, schools, etc.–that are necessary to have a viable economy. (Of course, It’s ironic that the party that is full of supposedly rock-ribbed conservatives who that claims to oppose hand-outs, public assistance and welfare–except for corporations– would be the one to first propose a handout; obviously, the GOP feels pressured to something, practically anything, at this point in an effort to improve its dismal chances in the November election. These rebates also add to the budget deficit; so much for the GOP and so-called conservatives commitment to the values of a balanced budget and fiscal restraint.)

 

We need a president and a Congress with the foresight to link improving our economic condition with serious steps to do something about our neglected infrastructure. This country’s infrastructure is crumbling. literally, around our heads while our so-called political leaders fiddle away oblivious to everything except maintaining their grips on power and feathering their nests. According to an article at metropolismag.com (“How to Fix America’s Crumbling Infrastructure,”

posted Aug. 9, 2005), the American Society of Civil Engineers, “judged the country on 15 infrastructure categories ranging from aviation, drinking water, and hazardous waste to rail, schools, and security. The resulting ‘2005 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure’ awards the U.S. an overall grade of ‘D’: a step below the cumulative ‘D+’ received in 2001, the last time the ASCE issued the report.”

 

The ASCE document also offers an analysis of each of the 15 areas, as well as breakdowns of infrastructure quality in each of the 50 states.” (Go to http://www.metropolismag.com/cda/story.php?artid=1528 to read the whole article.) The section that covers Florida noted, to cite just a few disturbing statistics, that “18% of Florida’s bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete” and that “57% of Florida’s schools have at least one inadequate building feature” and “80% of Florida’s schools have at least one unsatisfactory environmental condition.” (To read the whole section on Florida, go to http://www.asce.org/reportcard/2005/page.cfm?id=49)

 

An Aug. 2, 2007 article from the Christian Science Monitor reported that “According to engineers, the nation is spending only about two-thirds as much as it should be to keep dams, levees, highways, and bridges safe. The situation is more urgent now because many such structures were designed 40 or 50 years ago, before Americans were driving weighty SUVs and truckers were lugging tandem loads.”

 

Infrastructure has been forgotten during the Bush administration, which has been more interested in destroying Iraq to patch it together it incompetently than it has been in rebuilding America. An Aug. 31, 2007 article in The Huffington Post (http://huffingtonpost.com) noted that “In the wake of the deadly 35W collapse the House Transportation Committee called for a fuel tax hike. More specifically, Congressman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) indicated he would introduce legislation to fund bridge repairs and increase their inspections. According to Oberstar, a 5-cent increase in the gas tax would pay for a three year program that would generate some $8.5 billion a year.” The president dismissed this proposal, saying that “Before we raise taxes, which could effect economic growth, I would urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities.” (You can read the whole article, “The Other Bush Legacy: Our Crumbling Infrastructure, Booming Oil Company Profits” at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/raymond-j-learsy/the-other-bush-legacy-ou_b_62612.html ) Too bad, nobody in Congress apparently pointed out to the Idiot-in-Chief that if we weren’t doing “nation building” in Iraq we could afford to do it here WITHOUT raising any taxes.

Deteriorating infrastructure can have serious consequences. Exhibit No. 1 is the Aug. 1, 2007 collapse of the I-25 bridge in Minneapolis, Minn., which killed 13 motorists. Infrastructure has been forgotten for too long in this country while money was squandered on the unnecessary and disastrous war and occupation in Iraq. That war has consumed money that could have been used for infrastructure improvement, not to mention education, universal health care, environmental clean-up, etc.

 

Infrastructure is neither sexy nor exciting and it’s a hard sell because it doesn’t carry the sense of transcendent moral purpose that was offered by a war to overthrow a dictator with (non-existent as it turned out) weapons of mass destruction. As the article at metropolis.com pointed out, “Like most Americans, you probably don’t think about our nation’s infrastructure—the public works that serve as the backbone of our country—until something goes wrong: you find yourself snarled in a traffic jam, or hear a report about a possible contaminate in the water supply, or become frustrated at your plane’s two-hour delay.” Even then you may blame bad luck or incompetence, not a willful failure by our political leaders to spend the money necessary to build and maintain infrastructure properly and to order political priorities in such a way that all of us rather than just the military-industrial complex and big corporations benefit.

 

Fortunately, doing something about infrastructure can be accomplished at the same time we try to stimulate the economy. The solution is simple and it is one that has worked successfully in this country and others: massive public works projects that would create jobs, boost the economy, and lay the ground work for greater economic prosperity in the future by planting its seeds today.

 

These federal public works jobs should pay living wages–at least $10 an hour, more in areas with high costs of living. Unemployed and underemployed people could be put to work; doing something productive, which would help them and society.

 

It’s sad that the Democrats–once seen as the party of working people– haven’t proposed a robust public works program as an alternative to the GOP plan. They seem to forget that one of the greatest Democratic presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, used public works projects and increased government spending to help pull the country out a devastating depression that had produced massive unemployment and homelessness and that threatened to tear apart the social fabric of our nation. They need to take inspiration from the courage of FDR’s convictions and the sweep of his vision for helping those victimized by economic forces that have strained their ability to cope to the breaking point. A massive public works program would improve the quality of life for Americans–driving on crumbling roads and bridges and sending kids to crumbling public schools are indeed quality of life issues– and the tens of billions of dollars spent on public works projects by newly employed people would provide a real shot in the arm to the economy since those people mostly would spend it on the basic necessities of life–rent, food, clothing, gas/transportation, etc.

 

Public works jobs would help the people who need it the most- people from minority communities and rural areas who usually have higher rates of un- and under- employment and typically earn lower wages. It makes sense to help people who genuinely need help. It doesn’t make sense to reward people who don’t need or deserve help and may not spend their rebate check anyway. In the long-term, of course, if they bank their checks that helps the economy since that money is available for capital investments that can improve productivity/GDP and create jobs. In the short-term, however, rebate checks whether or not they’re spent immediately will do little turn around the economy.

 

Some will quarrel with the idea of putting people to work through creating public-sector jobs. They will complain about increased government spending and an increase in the size of government. They may even denounce a federal public works program as (horrors!) socialism. At its most simple socialism is a scheme for the sharing of material goods and services. Isn’t it about time that the poorest among us shared in some of the wealth and prosperity of this country? Isn’t it about time they had decent jobs that allowed them to support themselves and their families with some comfort and dignity? A massive federal public works program would help achieve those goals and it would be a helping hand, not a hand-out, since it would be based upon earning the money not just having an address where a rebate check can be received.

 

Another long-term positive effect would be to increase wages for workers in the lowest-paid jobs, usually unskilled service employment. These workers might be attracted to public works jobs that paid a living wage as opposed to continuing to flip burgers at wages for minimum wage or a dollar or two above it. This in turn would force those employers to increase wages in order to keep and attract workers. Right-wing economists will complain that this would fuel inflation and reduce the number of low-wage service jobs, but those effects will be minimal and offset by the social good that will result from lower-paid workers earning more. If we have to pay a few cents more for a McGarbage burger, so what? Isn’t it worth it, if society benefits from having the lowest paid workers earning a little more and enjoying a little better standard of living? And if the business is there, service industries will continue to hire people, even if they have to pay them more. After all, they will still be making profits, and that’s the name of their game.

 

Hell likely will freeze over before any of the candidates in either party with a possibility of moving into the White House proposes anything so bold as massive federal public works projects to provide employment, rebuild infrastructure and raise wages, but it’s still important to remember that there other options besides doing nothing or too little. Imagination is an important part of trying to create a better and more just society.

 

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Written by jackofspades83

February 20, 2008 at 11:12 pm

One Response

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  1. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Tom Humes

    Tom Humes

    February 20, 2008 at 11:16 pm


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