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Rebuilding an American Legacy

A Commentary by Joe Conason

Thursday, April 08, 2010

If there is any subject that enrages those who now call themselves conservatives, it is federal spending -- and especially the stimulus program enacted by the Democratic administration and Congress last year. The government can do nothing right, they say. The stimulus was pure waste that created no jobs at all. The country would be better off without Washington taxing and spending at all.

And in the next breath, those same furious folks will say that we are robbing the generations ahead by burdening them with a legacy of debt.

What would be left to future generations if the public functions symbolized by stimulus spending simply disappeared? What will the future be if government doesn't repair and transform the roads, bridges, sewers, power grids, reservoirs, levees, airports, railways, subways, schools, parks, colleges and hospitals that we are leaving to our children in much worse shape than they were left to us? How will those facilities serve the future if they are disintegrating today?

The collapse of American infrastructure is a shamefully old story by now, featuring scary statistics that must be updated regularly as the situation worsens. President Obama's stimulus legislation appropriated nearly $100 billion for highways, transit, schools, parks, water and other public facilities, but its real purpose was to stoke immediate economic activity rather than long-term infrastructure improvements. The aim was to create and save jobs right away and to provide relief to state and local governments and working families. Its provisions for infrastructure hardly began to address actual needs -- as the president would certainly acknowledge.

Estimates of those needs simply dwarf the amounts that successive governments have found available to meet them.

To keep roads and bridges in decent repair -- that is, to bring them back to the condition of previous decades and keep them from falling down -- we would have to spend $166 billion a year for the next five years. To maintain the standards of purity required by the Clean Water Act, we would need to spend at least $500 billion more than currently planned over the coming two decades. To improve transit sufficiently to meet increasing demand in a carbon-choked world, we should spend an additional $25 billion every year. To create the world-class rail systems enjoyed by our European competitors -- and currently under construction by the Chinese -- we would be looking at another hundred billion dollars or so over the coming decade.

Without substantial investment in those sectors, the American future looks dim. Our capacity to compete with other countries will continue to shrink. Our daily lives will be increasingly consumed by traffic delays, airport slowdowns, transit breakdowns and all the myriad problems inherent in a crumbling, overcrowded and inadequate public sector.

Our health and safety will be endangered by polluted water and air, as well as falling bridges, uncontrolled flooding, pothole-marked roads and derailed trains. Our educational and intellectual advantages will undergo a similar decline, as school enrollments keep climbing while budgeting for new and renovated buildings keeps falling.

So the politicians and television personalities who rant constantly against government insist that tax cuts are the only priority and oppose every attempt to restore the very things that laid the foundation of our prosperity are worse than irresponsible. They are like termites, gnawing away at the remarkable legacy left to our generation, one which we must pass on. They are willing, even eager, to squander trillions of dollars on wars abroad, no matter how dubious, and then waste trillions more on "defense" pork that benefits only their donors.

For those dubious purposes -- and to cut the taxes of the wealthy, of course -- they are willing to borrow money from abroad. But revitalizing the nation and preserving our common heritage for our children -- those are necessities we supposedly cannot afford.

But we cannot afford to ignore these needs. It is a crime to use up the past and leave only memories of a better time. Finding the ways and means to rebuild America is an economic necessity today -- and a moral obligation to those who will follow us.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

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