01 February 2008

Good Government

Sara Robinson has two posts up entitled "Stealing Our Future" parts one and two. They're both excellent, and consider the long-term effects of the right-wing dismantling of government and of public resources in general in the last thirty years. Some quotes:
From the very beginning, we've been some of the biggest dreamers and most effective planners the world has ever seen. For better or worse, we settled up a continent, crossed it with railroads and interstates, dammed the West, dominated the skies, got water and power and phone lines into the most remote towns, fought a war in two theaters, and put men on the moon. Say what you will about the consequences of these endeavors; but they are not the achievements of a people who were afraid to look far ahead and imagine big things, who were unable to see all the possibilities, or who were ineffective at bringing those dreams into reality.


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.


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.

For many of us, the furious response to "Who could have foreseen it?" is "How could we have screwed it up so badly? Can't we do anything right any more?" We have the sinking feeling that, even in their youth, our grandparents would have been far more likely to do the right thing in response to almost any situation -- 9/11, Katrina, Saddam, or Iran -- than anybody currently on the scene now. It's becoming obvious that this helplessness, this total inability for a nation of visionary planners to mount an effective response to even small challenges, has deep roots in three decades of right-wing anti-government corporatism. These are the only people profiting from our devastating inability to envision, organize, and implement any kind of public plan.


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. Ridiculed and belittled as "the bureaucracy," these people had once been the eyes and ears overseeing our common interest. For fifty years, they'd developed and maintained our visions of a future that included clean water and food, immunized kids and effective epidemic response, safe roads and buildings (and levees), good relationships with the world's other nations, and (in more recent years) responsible environmental stewardship. They monitored leading indicators, tended the engines of our prosperity, and looked ahead to the changes that would be required to keep America competitive.

And now they are gone. "Where do we want to be in 20 years?" has been replaced with "I want it NOW." Decisions based on sound science and good planning practices have been replaced with messages from George Bush's gut. We can't say he didn't warn us: way back in September of 2000, still on the campaign trail, he was insisting that "We don't believe in planners and deciders making the decisions on behalf of Americans." Much later, of course, he changed his mind about that. Now, it turns out, he's the decider.

You should really go read the whole thing, as it's so rich and full of detail that I can't really get at the essence of it without clipping it to shreds. I'll just quote this last little bit from the second article:

So, how do we shape things up and make it work again?

First, we need to bust down that old conservative trope that tax money is always wasted. The conservatives originally sold themselves as the party of prudent, business-like management of the public purse, contrasting themselves to "tax-and-spend liberals" (an accusation that finally seems to be dying a painful and ironic death). But if they actually were running this country as you'd run a business, they'd be taking that revenue and looking for the best possible investment. And, since the beginning of the nation, the best investments we've ever made have been those made directly in the American people themselves.

Invest in a school, and over the course of the next several decades, you'll get tens of thousands of literate, creative workers — a few of whom will go forth and transform the world, and the rest of whom will do well, pay taxes, obey the law and contribute to the life of their communities. Invest in housing, and you put more families on the road to accumulating middle-class wealth, which will make a difference for generations. Invest in transportation and communication, and you streamline commerce for the next 50 years. Invest in new technologies, and you seed new industries that will create jobs and generate tax revenue — which can be invested again for even further prosperity. Invest in a GI Bill, and you get the Greatest Generation, and the postwar boom they created.

The whole thing reminds me of this bit from Wesley Clark from a while ago, regarding government bungling after Katrina.
So those were some of the organizational mistakes, and leadership mistakes and.. choices. But when you get right down to it, to make something like this work you have to do a lot of rehearsal. People have to think through the problem. Somebody has to say "Well, gee we're gonna have eighty thousand people with no transportation. Uh, let's see eighty thousand, now, how many per bus? What's our planning figure per bus? Forty. Forty, if you can get a big bus, forty. Ok, so let's see, forty into eighty thousand. You need two thousand buses? Uh, but, uh, what's the readiness rate on buses? Well, like one in ten won't work. And one in ten might break down, how far they gotta go? I dunno, where we gonna put the refugees?". So then you start, you know, trying to work your way backwards through this thing. Turns out you might need three thousand buses, with three thousand five hundred drivers, with extra tanker trucks, refueling stations because, what if it's the middle of the night and the bus is out in the middle of Louisiana, you know, it gets, drove a hundred and fifty miles down, drove a hundred and fifty miles back, it's got a two hundred mile range. It needs more fuel. So somebody has to think of all this, and to plan it. "Ok, what community, you got twenty buses, you got fifty buses, you got a hundred buses but you're three hundred miles away." So, I mean all that had to have been worked out. Where're they gonna meet the buses? What neighborhood? What roads are gonna be flooded? Somebody has to do all that. None of that was done.

And then, when you ask for the buses, you know you've gotta have a sort of sequence ok. You ask for the buses and then somebody has to call each community. Do you know who to call? Who do you call? School board? Mayor? Chief of Police? Fire Department? "Um, ok but the Mayor's office is closed." Got a home number for the Mayor? And then, how bout the bus driver? How do you get the bus driver at two AM? And what percentage of them no longer have the same phone number that they had when they signed up for work five years ago? You know? Have you ever tried it? So, when you sort of work all through this thing it's like.. It's like doing line dancing. I don't know if.. you ever do line dancing? My wife and I went out one time, this guy says, "Hey you've gotta learn this." He's big into country western music. He says, "You gotta learn this line dancing." My wife got to the ninety second step, and she said, "I quit!" She said, "Any dance that's got ninety-two steps, I'm not doing!" And, to make this kind of stuff work, you gotta go though a hundred and ninety-two steps. And they've gotta be thought out. Somebody's got to be responsible for it, and, as soon as they come back and tell you the, you know, "We tried, we missed ten percent of the buses. Cause we couldn't, you know these were the ones that..". Somebody's got to follow up and say, "Ok, get so and so on the phone, drive from this town to that town. Go to the parking lot for the buses. Get me backup drivers. I want National Guard. Break the padlock. Get into the buses. Start the buses." You know, and, how are you going to do that with people who've never done it before?

Dealing with social problems is hard, and it requires hard-working, intelligent, serious people to deal with it. Put a bunch of cronies and ideologues who provide only vague platitudes about letting "the market" solve problems through the magic wand of "competition", and what you really end up with is Bad Government.

Can we put some grown-ups back in charge of the government sometime soon? Like, before we end up in the proverbial handbasket?

No comments: