'Small Government' Can't Maintain Infrastructure

A society that values lower taxes above all other considerations shouldn't be surprised when its public realm crumbles beneath it, writes Joshua Holland.

"The tragic collapse this week of a stretch of I-35 spanning the Mississippi river in Minnesota was shocking but should come as no surprise. America's core infrastructure has been falling apart in very visible ways during the past few years.

...It was the second U.S. bridge collapse this week -- a span in California fell the day before, with far fewer injuries and no loss of life. The tragedy occurred just weeks after an 80-year-old steam pipe in Manhattan blew up, killing one and injuring dozens more. A year earlier, a section of tunnel in Boston collapsed, killing a woman as she drove home. A year before that, hundreds of thousands of Americans became refugees after New Orleans' pitiable levees collapsed -- a graphic illustration of shortsighted public policy if ever there was one.

It's a predictable outcome of the rise of "backlash" conservatism...A thousand grifters have gained office promising to...deliver more and better public services while constantly cutting the taxes that pay for them, but it was always a fraud.

We've swallowed 30 years of small-government rhetoric, and it's led us to a point in which our infrastructure, once the pride of the developed world, is falling apart around us. We're reaping what we've sown."

Full Story: Are the Dead From the Minneapolis Bridge Collapse Victims of Conservative Ideology?



More of the same

I don’t expect much from Alternet, and I’m rarely disappointed. To blame “conservative ideology” for infrastructure failures is ludicrous, to put it gently. Public infrastructure is one of the few things I believe government should be responsible for. As for the article, I note that two of the “failures” occurred on new construction (the California bridge, and the Boston tunnel). Or do we blame conservatives for engineering failures now, too? The other point I want to make is that since the beginning of “The War on Poverty” in 1965, we have spent trillions of dollars on welfare and other entitlements. $5.8 trillion from 1965-1995 alone. That would’ve paid for a lot of bridges.

Conservative Parties hijacked by private industry

You have to admit, that you may believe in that idea of public infrastructure, but the conservative parties (republicans and libertarians) have turned into anti-tax crusaders in all respects. I'm sure liberal parties have also become extremists in other regards. Nonetheless the Grover Norquists of the world think that ALL taxes should be reduced or abolished, and the more extreme libertarians would want to see all infrastructure toll based.

I will grant you and another poster here that throwing money at the problem is not the answer, but as a supporter of the public sector (and a student of public management) I know that it is hard for them to do their job when the dominant party (republican for the last 7 years) constantly denigrates their ability to do anything right, and says that private profit driven action is the answer to everything.

Reagan said "government is not the solution its the problem." and Norquist wants to see it "shrunk to the size where it can be strangled in the bathtub." To me this seems like a recipe for a return to Feudalism. Rather than a society of individual responsibility and hard work (the admirable goal or conservatism), I think we are ending up in a society where the haves, set the terms for acquiring more and denying opportunity to the have-nots.

Remember the Gilded Age. Big Government was once the answer to the negative consequences of over-privatization.

As to your other point, 1965-1995 may have been bad years for bridge building but they were good years for income disparity in this country. Since then we have seen a huge increase in the difference between the rich and the poor. So in otherwords your talking about apples and oranges. Should we ignore social infrastructure for physical infrastructure. I'm guessing you would say yes.

Economic priorities

There's a kernel of truth in your views that quickly dissolves into some extremely bizarre stuff.

First of all, I don't know anyone advocating no taxes at all under any circumstances. There's talk about privatizing governmental functions, flat taxes or high sales taxes but the most liberals resist any attempts at tax reform or going after doomed entitlement programs like social security.

Instead the focus on government income redistribution with has little basis in economics and only makes sense politically as big bribe for some voters.

Politicizing the building and maintainance of capital investments is to be expected but remember both parties have a hand in it when structures like bridges are designed for 50 years of use. If you think bridges and levees only fail when Republicans are running the show, I guarantee we will see more infrastructure failures regardless of the party in power.

"Reagan said 'government is not the solution its the problem.'" Yeah, and Bill Clinton said the era of big government was over. By the same token Pres. Bush has been a big spender himself so party affliation isn't always destiny.

"To me this seems like a recipe for a return to Feudalism."

Hmmm, I agree we need more funding for mental health if you think the U.S. is heading towards a new Dark Age.

"Since then we have seen a huge increase in the difference between the rich and the poor. So in otherwords your talking about apples and oranges. Should we ignore social infrastructure for physical infrastructure. I'm guessing you would say yes."

Again, income redistribution for its own sake is a political ploy and has little to do with economic performance. Good infrastructure and a good public education, for example, pay off in the long run but of course with our test scores for kids in public schools on par with world powers like Cyprus and South Africa. I don't expect that to change since there's been no real school reform here for at least 40 years. More importantly, income redistribution rests on raising productivity levels to pay higher wages; rather than, just seizing existing assets. You assume the U.S. economy is operating in a vacuum when we face tough competition from other countries our parents and grandparents saw as poor rice pickers.

Income Redistribution

"government income redistribution with has little basis in economics and only makes sense politically as big bribe for some voters."

Not true. In fact, greater equality of income increases overall well-being. There is a basic principle of economics called the "law of diminishing marginal utility," which says that, as your income increases, you are able to spend it on less and less important products. Thus, if a moderate income person earns an extra $10,000 per year, it might make it possible for him to afford needed prescription drugs, to send his child to college, or to buy his own home. If a very high income person earns an extra $10,000 per year, it might make it possible for him to afford a slightly larger second home as his vacation house. Redistributing that $10,000 from the very rich person to the moderate income person obviously increases overall economic well-being.

Of course, there is a problem if redistribution is carried so far that there is less incentive. At the extreme, if an unskilled worker, a highly skilled and educated worker, and a CEO all get the same salary, then not enough people will make the effort to learn skills the economy needs or to do the hard work and take the risks needed to rise to CEO level.

But the United States economy is nowhere near the point where equality reduces incentive. Inequality is greater in the United States than in any other industrial nation. Since the Reagan years, Republicans have claimed that greater inequality will increase incentives, but this claim has no basis in economics and only makes sense politically as very big bribe for some very rich voters.

Charles Siegel

Thank you. I must have said

Thank you. I must have said some really bizarre things, because your response is all over the place.

First, I said Feudalism which is a system of political organization, not "Dark Ages" which was a historical period. And is it really crazy to see this as a possibility in contemporary America when you look at the rise of gated communities, private police forces, roads, and toll roads."

I guess I should revise my comment, to say that conservative parties are anti-ALMOST ALL non-local taxes.

You say that income re-distribution has no basis in economics. Maybe it doesn't, but it has its basis in public policy. There are other pertinent fields in public deliberation besides economics, and other measurements besides your pocket book. According to most academic articles I've read, there are higher levels of satisfaction in societies with lower levels of income disparity than in ours. You may be satisfied with American society as it stands, but that doesn't mean everyone is. You assume that from your position. (and please don't tell me to leave, I plan on staying right where I am and working to make things my idea of better, I'll see you at the polls)

In essence the Libertarian motto should be (from the old socialist one) "From each according to his ability (to pay), to each according to his (need to buy)." And that is why I say extreme libertarianism is close to feudalism. If my desire to pay for public goods determines my level of access to those goods, then the more I have the more access I get. Given a few more decades of complete local control of infrastructure you will end up in a situation where wealthy areas get wealthier and poorer areas poorer. Basically reproducing a scenario of economic fiefdoms. Now, before you get too excited, this is an intellectual exercise, and I'm not saying we will have Lord Gates of Seattle, and Duke Bush of Houstonia. But if you truly see a model of TOTAL individual responsibility, then those that have deserve more say than those that do not have.

Great! Now I'm all over the place, and we are totally off the original subject, that conservative pro-tax reduction policies have contributed to the deterioration of public infrastructure. (Which they do.)


Quote from above:

"...conservative pro-tax reduction policies have contributed to the deterioration of public infrastructure. (Which they do.)."

Actually, a lot of economists feel that certain tax-cuts actually bring in more tax revenue than the orginal higher tax rates (this is also a subject of debate between certain schools of economic thought), which is why government revenues surged after Kennedy (not a conservative), Reagan and Bush the Younger (with his 2003 capital gains tax cut)...and of course government spending and fed monetary policy also can moderate, eliminate, or enhance the effects of any given tax cut.

Anyways, if this is true, then it's really a question of spending priorities... I for one think there's plenty of money out there, but there's very little political will to spend it on things such as infrastructure maintenance as such housekeeping/maintenance type stuff does nothing to further a politician's future career.

It's not that simple...

Coming from a background in city management, with practical experience in several small towns, I can tell you that the smaller towns (the canaries in this coal mine if you will) are already dead or dying when it comes to thier infrastructure, and many don't know it yet...

(1) The increasing costs of maintaining infrastructure, (2) the increasing regulatory overhead involved in planning the improvements and budgeting for the capital expenses, (3) the increased costs involved in operating water and wastewater related infrastructures, (4) the growing fiscal animosity between the states and localities as budgets continue to tighten, (5) the misperception that healthy infrastructure automatically means growth, and (6) the desire to control growth to the point that any positive progress is choked off...

All contribute to a local government political position that, in the face of shrinking funds, seeks to maintain a 'head in the sand' approach to fixing and operating infrastructure. Many small towns just want to keep things "the way they have always been", and unfortunately don't realize that this position, and it's sibling "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" don't result in a neutral stance, but actually results in the locality moving in the wrong direction. There is no standing still -- only advancing or retreating, and the failure to plan and act, even in the face of seemingly impossible fiscal restraints, is still a disservice to the community...

Many of the little guys just don't have what it takes to fund the operation of thier infrastructures any more, but they aren't ready to get outside of the political box and come up with some functional, if unpopular, solutions such as taxes, partnerships with private entities, and cooperative ventures with other localities and jurisdictions...


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