Friday, September 25, 2009

What Are Our Lives Worth: $1.4 Trillion More for Housing Rescue vs. $8 Billion for Dam Rehabilitation

One of the distinguishing characteristics of a true Third World nation is flagrant disregard for human life,which is usually manifest in a society's spending priorities. In failing societies with rapidly increasing populations and shrinking wealth, what remains of the nation's financial resources are increasingly diverted by political corruption and statist initiatives designed to sustain the unsustainable at unlimited cost to the taxpayers, for the benefit of select constituencies, which in the case of the United States are the Wall Street financial cabal, the homebuilders, and homeowners buried in homes that continue to lose value.

The financial black hole opened by the collapse of our housing and credit markets keeps growing and threatens to suck every dollar of tax revenue we hope to realize for years to come into it with no offsetting benefit to taxpayers (least of those who rent and aspire to buy homes), and most of all at the cost of every other necessity, notably our emergency preparedness and our rapidly decrepitating Pharaonic infrastructure, to which a pittance, relatively speaking, has been allocated to affect urgently needed repairs on critically deficient roads, bridges, and dams. While nearly $1.4 Trillion of taxpayer guarantees have been extended to the housing market over the next few years, Congress is still debating whether to commit $8 Billion to repairs to dangerously deficient large dams whose failure could cost thousands of lives and tens of billions of dollars in economic losses. The Wired Magazine article I linked speaks only of non-federally owned dams that have been "orphaned" by owners who've gone out of business. There is no discussion of the 600-foot or taller mega-dams owned by the Bureau of Reclamation, whose spokespeople glibly assure the public that most federally owned dams are in safe operating condition, despite what is known about a couple of its largest structures, notably the fragile 710-foot-high Glen Canyon Dam that nearly breached in 1983 and has been "shit-rigged" ever since, while the movement to decommission and remove the dangerous structure was quietly tabled by its owner, the Bureau of Reclamation, for unstated reasons.

Is the Glen Canyon really any safer than it was in 2007, when it was named one of the two most dangerous dams in the country, or is it just that there is no money available for the massive task of removing it?

Fixing the 1,800 large American dams that represent the biggest threat to human lives will "cost billions, but can we afford this in addition to roads, bridges, and other projects?" asks one recent article on CNN Money.

How could we even ask if we can "afford" $8 Billion to fix "worst-case" dams with their immense watersheds containing millions of people exposed to major flood hazards, in a context where we are committing trillions to propping up property values, modifying mortgages, and enticing new homebuyers into a falling market, creating yet another future wave of defaults in the process? The money spent on Cash for Clunkers could have paid for the repairs on a couple of the larger and more endangered dams, or for a number of critically deficient bridges. Can we afford not to make these repairs?

"Where food is dear, life is cheap", someone once remarked a couple of centuries ago, and the depletion of our resources and in tandem with an expanding population,falling incomes, and increasing internal divisions and conflicts, has dire implications for our future political and social climate. We seem to be well along the path so many other societies have traveled as they ratchet down the slope of declining productivity and increasing impoverishment, as we become more and more apathetic and callous in the face of rising crime, violence, and poverty.

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