Monday, July 26, 2010

Skewed Priorities


That's the overriding message from the northwest corner of Iowa, where the Lake Dehli Dam breached and drained the recreational lake behind it this weekend. There was no loss of life and no one was seriously injured, thankfully, but the resulting deluge pretty well gutted the value of the area to the vacationers who own the 900 or so homes that fronted the lake...  which was all most of the folks there could think about.

Nobody, not one person, said, Thank God there were no fatalities or injuries, which is the first thought you have when something like this happens.  There didn't seem to be a lot of sympathy or concern for the people downriver whose businesses and permanent homes were wrecked by the torrent, and a local official said in passing that his town would of course apply for funds for cleanup, which is going to be a big job. But that seemed to be a peripheral concern to most of the people interviewed.

What most people talked about first and the most was how they hoped the Feds would step in with the money to rebuild the dam, because otherwise their vacation homes-  mostly second homes worth from $50,000 to $500,000- will be almost worthless without the lake it created.

Like the rest of the taxpayers in this country have nothing better to do with $200 million or so than to rebuild a  small dam solely to restore a recreational lake,  to rectify the economic losses of a handful of second-home owners.

Our pols and economists are sending the public a lot of mixed messages mixed with hope fastened to very doubtful metrics, but the message we most need to be trumpeted from the rooftops is already printed on our increasingly decrepit and dangerous infrastructure, our $13 Trillion in public and private debt, our gutted manufacturing sector, and our failing war efforts in the part of the world on which we depend for most of our liquid fuels; is that the party is over.  We can't even afford to repair the things whose catastrophic failure would cause thousands of deaths; at this time there are over 3500 large dams and 8000 bridges classified as dangerously deficient, and whose catastrophic failure would easily kill thousands of people, that we are dragging our feet on because we already spent the $16 Billion required for minimal remediation on things like highways to nowhere and mega-sports arenas, supporting the government-financed mortgage market, paying subsidies to farm owners to not grow food, and paying people to buy new cars and build ever more houses that nobody can afford to buy, among many other wasteful expenditures too numerous to list here. 

We have extended ourselves financially into the next century, well beyond our childrens' probable lifetimes, since the post WW2 era in order to finance things that not only are too big and too complex to maintain as we start down the other side of the fuel supply curve, but continue to squander massive amounts of our remaining wealth, or rather, our remaining borrowing power, on things that cannot be considered public purpose and are flatly extravagances that we never really could afford and that are now crowding out urgent public needs that we don't have much time to meet before energy costs place them beyond our reach forever.

The figure in the foregoing paragraph does not include private debt, which maybe doesn't mean anything anyway since so much of the public debt was incurred in backstopping the financial institutions against the losses they incurred from this private debt. Municipal shortfalls and state deficits are also not included, nor are future pension and entitlement program obligations.

Suffice it to say that recreational lakes in Iowa and 850-unit luxury condo towers in Chicago's laughably glutted north lake front condo market, among thousands of other costly private indulgences that come at public expense, are costly frills that benefit few, and that neither the country at large nor this city can accommodate any longer without making steep sacrifices in the things we need to live decently and safely. But the American middle classes, steeped in delusion and fantasy, and possessed of a swollen sense of entitlement, are the people least apt to get the message broadcast by the ever-increasing numbers of boil-water days, extended power outages, critical infrastructure failures, and the general decrepit and brittle condition of the country's systems, which is that we're at the end of our ability to pretend that we're still a wealthy country with unlimited resources and the competence to manage either our physical resources or finances so that we'll be able to keep the lights on and the trains running when energy supplies become critical.

1 comment:

Nudge said...

Fantastic post!

I am most afraid that if the American people draw any lessons whatsoever from the progressive decay of critical (yet unfunded or underfunded) infrastructure – such as the water, sewer, and power systems, let alone the rail and pipeline systems that bring vast quantities of necessary stuff into urban environments every day – the lesson will be something along the lines of them wanting to elect whoever promises, in perhaps the most harsh tones, to “find and punish whoever was responsible for this”.

It will be a political shell game of sorts. The thing that the American people will be particularly unable to countenance is the notion that our own super-sized lifestyle entitlements – like 19 square feet of retail space per adult & child alike, a large automobile for every adult, a garage and a half-acre plot and a 2500sf house for every family of 2 or 3, large school buses that form an expensive public transit system that runs only twice daily, thousands of channels of goop available in HD, smooth coast-to-coast highways that cost many millions of dollars per mile, cheap and bountiful energy – were merely the by-products of a confluence of events stemming from the destruction of most of the rest of the industrialized world in WW2 plus bountiful domestic oil supplies at the time.

The conditions that enabled these lifestyle entitlements are gone and not coming back. There seem not to be any politicians with enough backbone to deal with this simple fact.

We may probably expect much blame, much scapegoating, and many more little Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs running around trying to blame someone, ANYONE, for this mess. The list of convenient enemies-du-jour will eventually put to shame the lists used in Nazi German and Stalin's USSR. Politicians who haven't got the faintest clue about the fundamentals of the real situation will campaign under banners promising to “restore American dignity” or some such similar hogwash. The fact of the matter exists that we could have extended excellent passenger rail service to every burg of 5K+ population with the money that was spent (or, rather, given away, with the taxpayers footing the bill) propping up the banks with the largest shares of dodgy mortgage-backed securities. We could have rebuilt our power & water systems, our railroads, our bridges – but no, all that money went down a rat hole, and the value of it is gone but the bill remains on our tab.