The Bush Administration's 'War on Planning'

The decay of America's infrastructure and the Bush Administration's repeated excuse, "Nobody could have foreseen..." reveals how much of America's planning tradition has been lost to free market ideology, writes Sarah Robinson.

America's legendary facility with foresight and planning has all but vanished under 30 years of conservative rule....Most Americans are so deeply marinated in this culture of planning that we don't realize just how unique it makes us. We take it as a given that almost every county and region, and every state and government agency involved in land use and infrastructure, has a regional master plan on file somewhere. Planning commissions large and small are already working 20 years out, penciling in where the major roads will go, where the water will come from, where the houses and shopping centers will be, how many schools and firehouses and sewer plants they're going to need, and how they're going to finance it all. We have emergency plans for evacuations, disasters, epidemics, floods. When's your road up to be re-paved again? Odds are that City Hall can tell you, up to 10 years out.

Most of these institutions have been doing planning at this range since shortly after World War II, which was when the American culture of planning came into full bloom...An entire generation learned to take the long view, think in big pictures, and visualize future events. When the war ended, millions of men and women brought those skills home to the cities and suburbs, and applied them every aspect of their lives from building companies to running households. These skills and habits became an embedded part of American culture.

Foresight is power. Organization and planning create the future. Those who have mastered these skills greatly increase the odds that they'll be the ones to choose the future for everyone else. And therein lies the problem.

Short-circuiting government's capacity to exercise any kind of planning or foresight (or, importantly, oversight) on behalf of the people was a core piece of [the Conservative] rise to power. The War on Science that Chris Mooney so amply documents was accompanied, in a much lower key, by a War on Planning that gutted all the various methods the government used to develop large-scale plans, track leading indicators, and detect and adjust for disruptions.

And so it was that the thousands of public employees around the country who kept track of trends in labor, public health, ecosystems, water, soil, weather, and so on just sort of went away - defunded or discouraged at the behest of business patrons whose interests were threatened by the things these observers recorded. The engineers tasked with maintaining our existing infrastructure and planning future improvements were pushed to retire, or found jobs in the private sector. The land use commissions in charge of enforcing long-term regional plans were just another obstacle to building strip malls and big box stores, and either bought off or sued into compliance.

In short, everybody who knew how to do anything - and especially those doing it in the service of the citizens of the United States, rather than for the benefit of one or another corporate profiteer - was gradually cut out of the process.

We look, astonished, at our shattered infrastructure and know that something has gone horribly wrong.

Full Story: Stealing Our Future: Conservatives, Foresight, and Why Nothing Works Anymore

Comments

Comments

Campaign ad gone wrong

The planning aspects are interesting but planners aren't soothsayers and Nostradamus was not the father of urban planning. For an author who seems to equate all good planning as foreseeable, she does a terrible job even in hindsight.

"America's legendary facility with foresight and planning has all but vanished under 30 years of conservative rule."

Doesn't anybody remember Bill Clinton? Hilliary's husband?

"Which is why this whole "Who could have foreseen it?" question reveals so much about what's gone wrong in Bush's America. It's an admission of yet another secret piece of the right-wing agenda that's been quietly, steadily moving along since the Reagan years, and has finally brought us to the point where its catastrophic implications can no longer be ignored."

No problem if you have your trusty liberal decoder ring for vast right-wing conspiracies. Pure nonsense.

"(So does the religious right, which is why the largest department of strategic foresight in the country is now emerging at Pat Robertson's Regent University. They've got a vision for the future, and are getting very systematic about implementing it.)"

Missed that one. Regent University is going to control America. Nobody could have foreseen . . .oh yeah, that's the tone of this tripe.

"The War on Science that Chris Mooney so amply documents was accompanied, in a much lower key, by a War on Planning that gutted all the various methods the government used to develop large-scale plans, track leading indicators, and detect and adjust for disruptions."

Come work in my office. I haven't gotten a phone call from Pat Robertson or Pres. Bush to get rid of my computer or stop reading dry traffic impact studies or air quality documents. Please call.

"And so it was that the thousands of public employees around the country who kept track of trends in labor, public health, ecosystems, water, soil, weather, and so on just sort of went away — defunded or discouraged at the behest of business patrons whose interests were threatened by the things these observers recorded."

Any statistics to back this assertion? How can anybody talk about current conditions without any statistics to back her up?

"The land use commissions in charge of enforcing long-term regional plans were just another obstacle to building strip malls and big box stores, and either bought off or sued into compliance."

Really? Our commission may be leaning toward more growth but they don't rubberstamp everything unless Bush, Robertson or Reagan's ghost presumably calls.

"We listen, stunned, as China -- which is now far more serious about planning its future than we are — announces that it has beat us by years in completing the national backbone for its second-generation Internet network; that North Korea has nukes; that Europe has better, easier, more effective airport security than we do. We feel ashamed, and we wonder where our vaunted technological greatness went."

Just what America needs, Chinese environmental planning and product safety. More North Korean firecracker nukes and more onerous airport security rules against bringing the wrong wine and cheese onboard aircraft.

Agreed

this commentary or whatever it is - is a tirade gone wrong. It makes little sense somehow making a great leap between right wing conspiracies and our crumbling infrastructure. As long as our infrastructure is owned and operated by government entities, expect more crumbling due to fighting over funding/taxes/priorities. She makes this naive assumption that the private sector doesn't plan and somehow the public sector plans well. Perhaps she should look at our entitlement programs and how well "planned" those were.

I also agree

I’ve grown used to Planetizen posting some fairly useless stuff from time to time, but this is beyond the pale. This screed is entirely fact-free, and has no foundation in reality. Either that, or whatever I’ve been doing every day for the past twenty years is something other than “planning.” My wife will be surprised.

The ludicrous claim that our infrastructure is “shattered” is an insult to the thousands of people who dedicate their lives to the design, construction and maintenance of the incredibly complex system that makes all of our lives so much easier. No, Lebenon’s infrastructure is “shattered.” Iraq’s is “shattered.” Ours is fine. The balance of this ad is equally baseless. Hyperbolic drivel. I'm not sure who it was intended to reach, but I hope anyone who buys into this kind of lunacy stays away from the polls.

As far as Planetizen goes, posting this certainly reflects poorly on the management. I hope the check cleared.

Maintain (Put Your Country's Name Here)

The tragedy of the bridge collapse on August 1, 2007, moved me to write down something that I have been thinking about for a very long time. Rochester, NY's Democrat and Chronicle published it as a guest essay at the end of August, 2007. I then published the slightly longer version on Helium (See link below).

I am positing a way to both build, maintain and revitalize our infrastructure and assets and, in the process, create a sustainable economy based on a new growth paradigm. ( Just think: it would take a team of twenty painters to paint the 5.5mile San Francisco Bay Bridge 20 years. Then, it would need to be repainted. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2001/0...)

The article I wrote is called Maintain America and can be found on this page http://www.helium.com/tm/543355/maintain-america-movementin-other

Nick Clark

We will bankrupt ourselves in the vain search for absolute security: Dwight David Eisenhower : 34th president of the United States, 1890-1969

The War on Planning

Judging from the few comments already posted against Ms. Robinson's essay, this website is being watched by salivating conservative muggers waiting for liberal critics to venture into their line of sight. I would take exception only with a couple of points in the essay, and they do not negate the argument. First is the contention that planning in the US may have been at the zenith of the the art prior to the Reagan administration. Yes, we were good at it, but take a look at planning in the Netherlands today. And the attack on planning wasn't caused by Republicans, only. I worked for Dixy Lee Ray, Democratic Governor of Washington State in the mid '70s. She literally expunged "Planner" from the state civil service roster. As her planners, we had the responsibility for helping local communities deal with potentially harmful business and government proposals. This irritated her friends in the nuclear and oil industries.

In countless communities around the West, planning was criticized before 1980 because it raised questions regarding half-baked development schemes that resulted in sprawl and environmental problems -- development from which local land owners, home-builders, banks, engineer, architects and others made money. As a result of local pressure, the federal 701 planning grants (requiring local plans to be in place before federal funds could be used for local purposes) were changed to block grants and then to no strings grants.

No, the Bush Administration is just the most visible, vocal and effective of our political pimps, selling government functions and our commons to their business clients at an unprecedented scale. Historically, the pimping of government has been both partisan and non-partisan. This administration, however, has employed the first and most potent anti-planning strategy -- that is, to knock down and pervert any good information that might help us understand our system of governance and perhaps to improve it for the common good. Any mention of planning or regulation is met with howls of disinformation from obedient hit-men, particularly in the mainstream media (and now in the blogosphere) that seem to make sense -- until we activate our memories. Thank you, Ms. Robinson for reminding us.
Jay H. Moor

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