Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Musings on a train wreck

The wreck of a MetroNorth commuter train this past week, and the revelation that it could have been prevented if New York State had spent the money on a signal system upgrade that was ordered by a court, got me to thinking about the state of our country's public goods.

The US I grew up in had the world's most advanced infrastructure.  We had the world's best highway system.  The world's best railroad system - passenger and freight.  The best bus and transit systems. Our electrical transmission system, oil and gas delivery system, telephones, dams, inland waterways were the best. 

Our schools, colleges and universities were the envy of the world, our literacy and graduation rates the highest, and our well-funded scientists dominated the Nobel Prize lists. 

We had the most doctors and hospital beds per person, the lowest infant mortality, the lowest maternal death rate, the highest life expectancy in the history of the world. 

My young heart swelled with pride when I looked at maps of who made what. We were number one in steel, concrete, machinery, textiles, garments, electronics, just about everything. 

American rockets were certainly going to lead the world into the heavens. 

And we led the world in sports. Apart from the Soviet Union - and they had to be cheating somehow - US athletes absolutely dominated the Olympics.  We excelled because our youth were the healthiest and most self-confident,  but most importantly I'm sure because tens of millions were participating in well-funded school gym and sports programs and college 
inter-mural and inter-collegiate sports programs. 

When I first heard the fans chanting "USA Number One!" the US was already losing its world pre-eminence. It was a cry of defiance from a people who really had been #1 and despite growing anxiety still believed we were. 

Today it just rings hollow.  

The US still controls the Internet. We have the biggest and baddest military and spy network, and our banks and corporations, our billionaires, still dominate the world, but our land is going to ruin, our people are declining in health, and a mood of hopelessness and depression is gripping the land.

What does that have to do with the Bronx rail tragedy? 

Everything that made us great came from investing in our own country, putting our money, work and resources into all the common goods that we share together.  Our infrastructure.  And it's going to pot.  The interstate highway system, one of the wonders of the world, is falling into disrepair. Thousands of dams, tens of thousands of bridges are  unsafe.  Our passenger rail system is nearly gone, along with the inter-city, suburban and rural bus systems. 

Our electrical power transmission system is obsolete and terribly vulnerable, and our nuclear power industry has become a ticking time bomb.  Our gas and oil lines and gas mains are leaking, our fresh water reserves are becoming irreversibly polluted and our internet and cellular access outside the major cities is far behind world standards.  Rural hospitals and those serving poor neighborhoods have been going out of business for forty years, and in many parts of the US infant mortality, maternal death rates and life expectancy are falling behind much of the "third world".

The bold adventure into space, spurred by embarrassment at the hands of the Soviet Union, has withered to a chronically-starved unmanned space-exploration effort, while the NASA budget has shifted massively to surveillance and preparations for space warfare.

For thirty years now, desperate school systems have been eliminating mandatory gym programs and colleges have slashed intramural sports budgets, and the health and fitness of our youth is in decline.  The doctrines of scarcity, blaming, self-blame, doom and powerlessness have robbed us of our joy, our bravado, our self-confidence, while our leadership in sports narrows to a class of often fantastically overpaid professional athletes.

And the great Empire State can't even find the money to upgrade a railroad signal system, under a court order with a 10-year deadline. 

40, maybe 50 million people can't find real work, while our once-great country goes to ruin, and we're told there's no money to fix and upgrade it. 

How is that possible? 

Our prostitute mass media paints this collapse of the public sector as normal and inevitable, like the working out of some law of nature, while our lobotomized economists prove with charts, graphs and equations that any attempt to reverse this state of affairs will just make things worse.

From the perspective of any regular person, it makes absolutely no rational sense.   

It's heartbreaking. 

It's outrageous.
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