The Unethical Deficit Debate, a Cause for Despair

Our future, thanks to Washington, D.C.

If the bi-partisan dishonesty and unethical conduct surrounding the budget showdown last week didn’t cause you to despair, then you weren’t paying attention:

  • At a time when the federal deficit threatens the long-term (and not all that long, either) solvency of the U.S., risking quality of life, world leadership and security while placing us under the thumb of China, a Machiavellian adversary, both parties—and the President— opted for ideological point-scoring and demagoguery rather than serious explication of the issues.  Irresponsible cowards.
  • The government was brought to the brink of a shutdown over a pathetic, meaningless, 39 billion dollars of cuts that Democrats called “draconian” and Republicans and Obama trumpeted as the “largest budget cuts in U.S. history”. They were draconian only if you think like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who argued that Republicans were heartless to put “cowboy poetry” on the cutting block, and if, as is increasingly looking to be the case,  the Democrats are willing to let the country stay on the road to bankruptcy as long as it also leads them to power. The cuts were the “largest” only in their inflated figures: the budget was cut close to 50% after World War II. Liars and frauds.
  • Even if it were truly”the largest,” the heralded 39 billion dollars cut represented an infinitesimal dent in the overall budget and will have no appreciable effect on the deficit at all. It took a near shutdown to accomplish that. Easy Quiz: what are the chances of our current leaders displaying the political courage to make the substantial, genuine, painful cuts that all serious analysts agree are imperative to stave off financial ruin? Liars and cowards.
  • After all of the drama, after all the condemnation and hype, after “draconian” and “largest ever,” and after the President joined the charade, the no-nonsense Congressional Budget Office announced that by its calculations, the so-called cut was mostly fiction. It boiled down to only $352 million, less than 1% of a 39 billion that was inadequate to begin with. Incompetents.
  • The Democrats chuckled into their sleeves; the Republicans cried that they had been deceived, as if legislators don’t have the resources to find out what the money in the budget they are charged with approving actually pays for. Liars, incompetents and fools.

For me, the low point was President Obama’s speech at George Washington University, announcing his engagement—finally!—in the deficit-cutting debate while resorting that old Democrat stand-by, class warfare; blaming the Bush tax cuts, irresponsible but only one of many contributors to the deficit crisis; and  pledging to cut expenses by ending waste, fraud and abuse while simultaneously stating that the deficit couldn’t be cut by addressing waste, fraud and abuse.  It wasn’t any of those cynical moments that caused me to lose hope, however. It was the President’s insistence that the deficit cutting measures must not interfere with his highest priorities…such as building “new roads.”

Building new roads? One of the nearly unavoidable consequences of the irresponsible spending by both parties is that America will soon face an infrastructure crisis far more certain and just as devastating as any theoretical global warming disaster, one that could have been prevented at any time within the last four decades had our leaders not been criminally negligent. The nation has waited too long to repair its old roads,as well as its bridges, sewers, water mains and airports. As a result, people will die from collapsing bridges and diseases spread by rotting, century-old sewer systems; transportation will be more expensive, dangerous and inefficient; inner city residents will frequently find their water to be undrinkable or unavailable; and the economy will be permanently handicapped. Avoiding this rapidly approaching and long predicted unraveling of the connective tissue of civilization will require trillions, and a time when trillions have to be cut to avoid an equally horrible fiscal catastrophe, and when our feckless, spineless leaders bicker over accounting tricks.

Despairing yet? The infrastructure crisis is just one of several vital, core government functions that the open checkbook policies of Bush Republicans and Obama Democrats have jeopardized, but it is a good place to start working up resentment against the warped priorities of our elected leaders. Back in July, almost no one read my post about the issue, so I’m going to post it again now. Then, I wrote it to point out how another presidential administration was setting priorities based on interest groups and partisan constituencies while ignoring a dire national threat of long-standing. Now I recall it to show how stunningly irresponsible it is for both parties and the President to play political games with the need to get the budget process and deficits under control, and fast. If our debt doesn’t crush us, the crumbling infrastructure will. The original post, from July 19, 2010, was entitled “Blame Everyone for Infrastructure Ruin,” but right now, I think it is time to hold those in power accountable. Here it is:

In the early Eighties, I oversaw an independent study funded by the Highway Users Federation and the National Chamber Foundation called “Transport Tomorrow,” exploring the immediate need for transportation infrastructure repair and expansion in all modes of transportation: roads, railway, waterway, and airports. In the process of learning how dire the need for massive construction and repair was if America’s future commercial needs were to be met, the study commission made a disturbing discovery: urban water and sewer systems were crumbling too. There was literally not enough money to fix all the roads, bridges, tunnels, water mains and sewer pipes that had to be fixed, and the consequences of not doing so would be economic paralysis and worse, disease and even social unrest.

In the face of this looming and undeniably real disaster, the Reagan Administration ….did pretty much nothing. Neither did the Bush, Clinton and Bush II administrations, and even the Chamber of Commerce failed to make infrastructure repair one of its key issues. Oh, there were new projects, of course, and when a major bridge started to dump cars into rivers it was repaired. Holes were patched, pipes were replaced here and there. But the full-fledged commitment to the unsexy and incredibly expensive job of keeping the infrastructure sufficient to meet the needs of the nation, and protecting it from the ravages of use and time was deferred, and deferred, and deferred. Something was always more important: wars…tax cuts…the environment…health care. The Obama Administration is following this irresponsible pattern, except it has combined with the profligacy of the Bush Administration to push the Federal deficit into unprecedented dangerous territory. New taxes on just about everybody and everything are going to be needed to stave off financial ruin, and there will be little political will to spend any of the income on something as mundane, but crucial, as sewers.

The problem, however, has become infinitely worse since 1983, when “Transport Tomorrow” was released, and then as now, the attitude of our elected leaders is to let the next guy deal with the problem. Is this responsible? No. Is it cowardly? Yes. Is it a blatant, intentional and knowing distortion of priorities that will threaten American prosperity, jobs, and lives? Absolutely.

Here is a small glimpse of the enormity of the crisis:

  • Just replacing water and sewage lines across the U.S. will on its own cost some $660 billion to $1.1 trillion over the next two decades. The cost of not doing so: unimaginable. Flooding in inner cities, compromised drinking water, contaminated ground water, and more.
  • Maintenance and repair costs are currently rising at a rate 6% above the rate of inflation. The longer we wait, the more expensive it will be, both because the deterioration will be worse and the materials and labor will cost more.
  • More than 25% of the 600,000+ bridges in the United States are either either “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete” according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Upgrades and repairs are not keeping up with wear and tear, and fixing the bridges is anticipated to cost at least $650 billion over the next 50 years….if the money isn’t spent on something else, like it has been for decades.
  • As roads crumble without adequate funds available to fix them, rural communities are increasingly returning to gravel roads. Of course, gravel roads mean more wear and tear on cars, more wasted fuel, and returning to the quality of transportation of the Forties.
  • None of the above even considers the deteriorating inland waterways, canals, railroad tracks, airports and prisons, all of which are part of the crisis.

When the American Society of Civil Engineers issued its report about the crumbling infrastructure in 2009, it hoped that the bulk of Obama’s stimulus package would be aimed at this pressing need. After all, repairing the infrastructure does create jobs and business for the private sector: if we are going to bust the budget in the name of saving the economy, we should do it by spending on crucial tasks that are unavoidable and on problems that will get worse the longer we wait. The Democrats, however, opted for pork, money for favorite industries, bail-outs of bankers and other pet projects; less than a third of the stimulus package addressed the infrastructure. The Obama Administration, according to its website and definitely according to its public statements, places the crisis low on its list, behind jobs, immigration, climate change, health care, the wars, terrorism, financial reform, and, most of all, getting re-elected.

The information is public and well-documented; the consequences of ignoring the problem indefinitely are clear, and truly horrible. The proper priorities are also obvious, if anyone applies common sense. To take one especially infuriating example: nobody is certain of the extent of the effects of global warming, the time frame, or whether hamstringing American industry and spending (and forfeiting) billions of dollars to reduce carbon emissions will be sufficient to address the problem, whatever its scope. Yet the Obama Administration is accepting the doomsday logic of environmentalists who argue that it is better to waste money to prevent a disaster that may never happen than to risk doing nothing, in case the disaster can be averted. The U.S. infrastructure disaster is 100% certain to occur, and well before speculative global warming puts New York and Boston under water. Before we drown in the glacier-swollen ocean, we may be swimming in sewage, starving, sick and broke.

Blame interest groups for tunnel vision (but not caring about rotting tunnels), blame the media for wanting to talk about Lindsay Lohan rather than the holes in the nation’s rooves, walls and floors, blame the public for thinking that roads and water pipes repair themselves, blame deficit and anti-tax hawks who don’t know the difference between wasteful government spending and essential government spending…but most of all, blame our leaders, past, present and, I fear, future. They have been refusing to deal with this problem for more than forty years, and now they have our economy in a mess that makes it questionable whether we could afford to do what needs to be done even if we finally decided to do it.

Think about this every time your flight is delayed, a bridge is closed, a water main breaks or you hit a pot-hole. Maybe if enough of us get scared and angry, we can force our government to do one of its core jobs: to keep the country’s infrastructure from collapsing.

2 thoughts on “The Unethical Deficit Debate, a Cause for Despair

  1. I’ve known about this crisis for quite awhile, and I also expected the President to make infrastructure repair a major part of the stimulus package. Why wouldn’t he? It creates exactly the type of blue-collar jobs that has been hardest hit by the economic meltdown and we needed to do it anyway. I guess I vastly underestimated his incompetence.

    I guess the only way to go now is get a well, geothermal energy, a few solar panels, and an amphibious Jeep that runs on biodiesel (cellulosic ethanol being against federal law to make on your own). You can’t count on the government to be able to prioritize and focus on its VITAL functions. They may succeed in giving you free healthcare, but you will need it with the cholera you will get from the water, but you won’t be able to get to the doctor because the bridge is out. The sad thing is, the last person I heard make a coherent argument about this was G. Gordon Liddy. He gave a speech and he said the problem with government budgeting is that it starts with everything that everyone wants, and then tries to cut some. It needs to start with nothing and add the most vital things. You don’t do your household budget in a crisis by trying to cut little things. You start with “we need food, we need a place to live, we need heat, water…” you end when you run out of money. It might be interesting to see what happens if we try to budget the government like this. Does Medicare really come before clean drinking water? Does Medicaid really come before bridges?

  2. There is *zero* likelihood that the Federal Government will default for economic reasons. It’s all politics and pushing an agenda to dismantle the social safety net. Eliminate the Bush tax cuts, get the economy back on track, and stop fighting so damn many wars and the debt levels will stabilize.

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