Saturday, September 06, 2008

Obama, McCain & the Infrastructure Thing

Sarah Palin has enabled John McCain to revive the culture war as we argue over who is the real elitist, sexist or patriot. We've seen these sorts of smokescreens from Republicans before. They're diabolically brilliant at distracting voters with visceral appeals to the politics of cultural resentment while exploiting America's dark underbelly of racism and xenophobia. McCain/Palin even have the chutzpah to campaign as patriotic change agents eager to fight on behalf of regular folks while promoting polices that amount to class warfare against wage earners and small business entrepreneurs.

How easy to get caught up in Sarah Palin's polarizing celebrity and lose sight of the real issues at stake. That's exactly what the GOP wants. I too have been consumed by the Palin phenomenon in recent days and the GOP's toxic convention. Well it's time to get back to basics. Obama did a good job of that yesterday with respect to the new unemployment figures. I'd like to take a moment and focus attention on another vitally important issue that's easily overtaken by cultural politics: infrastructure.

Infrastructure is the lynchpin for any nation's ability to compete in a modern global economy. Fifty-two years ago we had a forward looking Republican President named Dwight Eisenhower who signed The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. The law appropriated $25 billion for the construction of 41,000 miles of interstate highways. It was the largest publics works project in American history at the time. Gasp! It required the power of our federal government.

Ninety-percent of the project was paid through a highway trust fund while the states contributed ten percent of the funding. Eisenhower believed this law vital to America's national security interests to help the military to mobilize troops more effectively in case of invasion by a foreign power. Ultimately, the investment more than paid for itself through jobs, economic growth and the development of the suburbs.

However, the Interstate Highway System also resulted in vehicle pollution and increased our dependence on foreign oil. Hence, with global warming and collapsing bridges our infrastructure requires a twenty-first century upgrade. Senator Obama addresses this issue of infrastructure at his website:
"As our society becomes more mobile and interconnected, the need for 21st century transportation networks has never been greater. However, too many of our nation’s railways, highways,bridges, airports, and neighborhood streets are slowly decaying due to lack of investment and strategic longterm planning. Barack Obama believes that America’s long-term competitiveness depends on the stability of our critical infrastructure. As president, Obama will make strengthening our transportation systems, including our roads and bridges, a top priority."
You can read the rest of Obama's infrastructure program by clicking here. Among the details referenced on his website is his proposal to create a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank. According to the Obama campaign, the purpose of this bank is to,
"expand and enhance, not supplant, existing federal transportation investments. This independent entity will be directed to invest in our nation’s most challenging transportation infrastructure needs. The Bank will receive an infusion of federal money, $60 billion over 10 years, to provide financing to transportation infrastructure projects across the nation. These projects will create up to two million new direct and indirect jobs per year and stimulate approximately $35 billion per year in new economic activity."
Now presidential candidates make many promises and one may have valid criticisms and questions about Obama's program. You might therefore be interested in comparing Obama's infrastructure program with John McCain's. However, when reviewing John McCain's website, his use of the word "infrastructure" is rather non-sequitor. For example:
"America cannot afford to lag in providing its citizens access to 21st Century infrastructure. Our children cannot count on a good education without high-speed Internet access. Without access, our citizens risk being left out of the societal and cultural changes that are sweeping the planet on a wave of innovation. Solving the problems of health care, immigration, climate change, and energy dependence all require connecting our citizens to a world-class network."
Hard to argue with the need for providing high speed Internet access. But what about modernizing our transportation system? Has he thought about that? McCain uses the word infrastructure again with this paragraph:
"As President, John McCain would continue to encourage private investment to facilitate the build-out of infrastructure to provide high-speed Internet connectivity all over America. However, where private industry does not answer the call because of market failures or other obstacles, John McCain believes that people acting through their local governments should be able to invest in their own future by building out infrastructure to provide high-speed Internet services."
Well that's nice. Once again McCain references the word infrastructure with respect to high speed Internet access. Wonderful that the man is finally taking an interest in the Internet and that he has such faith in the ability of local governments to address our infrastructure needs. Never mind that state governments are in dire economic straits and struggling to pay for any infrastructure improvements. As the New York Times recently reported, budgets gaps are forcing states to grapple with the risks of private financing for infrastructure projects to repair crumbling bridges, roads and airports. Among the potential risks is having foreign powers subsidizing repairs to our infrastructure.

Did I neglect to mention that John McCain is not offering a program with respect to modernizing our transportation and infrastructure? However, McCain's website (I wonder if he's read it) uses the word infrastructure three times with respect to America's space program.

For what it's worth, according to, there are three definitions to the word infrastructure:
  1. the basic, underlying framework or features of a system or organization.
  2. the fundamental facilities and systems serving a country, city, or area, as transportation and communication systems, power plants, and schools.
  3. the military installations of a country.
Yet when reviewing McCain's website, one can't help but wonder if he understands the meaning of the word. Ironically, the New York Times reported last year that McCain criticized congress following the Minnesota bridge collapse for failing to address infrastructure repairs:
“I think, perhaps, you could make an argument that part of the responsibility lies with the Congress of the United States,’’ Mr. McCain said at a town hall meeting here just outside of Des Moines. “Do you know what we do with your tax dollars every time you go and fill up your gas tank, and that money that flows to Washington as a result of that? We spend approximately 20 billion –b — billion dollars of that money on pork barrel earmark projects.’’
No doubt he had the "bridge to nowhere in mind" that his running mate was for before she was against. I'll give McCain credit for at least using the word infrastructure in its proper context at the time.

The upshot my fellow citizens is that John McCain and his Republican Party haven't applied any serious thinking to infrastructure since President Eisenhower. They don't care. The basics of good government such as infrastructure does not interest John McCain or his party. And if he becomes President America will continue to decline.

Barack Obama as he himself has acknowledged is not a perfect candidate. Personally I wish Obama was bolder and less risk averse. But at least the vitally important issue of infrastructure is on the front lobes of his brain.

Those of you who are activists like myself, please consider talking to people about infrastructure. For much of the summer I've struggled while phone banking against the undercurrent of racism and ignorance (he's a Muslim, he's all talk, he dissed the troops and so forth). However, most recently I have found myself getting traction when interjecting infrastructure into the conversation - even with people who seemed cynical or culturally opposed to Obama. Bricks and mortar is something everyone understands.


Anonymous said...

I work for a company that provides geophysical services for highway and bridge infrastructure projects.
Our focus is on providing service before a disaster happens- but try to sell that to the gov't or any business for that matter.

Essentially-what we can do is scan structures for a base line (like a mammography) and then repeat the process on a 2 year cycle- thus giving a clear internal picture of what is happening now- so it can be determined what will happen later. Bridge inspections are not done on a unified cycle- where all components of the bridge structure are studied as one picture-at the same time. Kind of like doing a mammography on one side and then months or years later the other side- a waste of valuable time and money.
This is a very simple explanation of the geophysical technology that we use- but the premise stands- preventitive maintenance is not something the gov't is willing to buy into-yet billions of dollars fell from the sky-when the I-35 bridge collapsed- and the bridge repair bid was awarded to a foreign contractor- who actually bid higher than a US contractor- explain that one. How much preventitive work could have been done with that money- that supposedly wasn't there for maintenace. The gov't isn't made to think that way- and by made I don't mean designed- I mean held accountable for.
I can't lay all of this at the feet of the gov't- citizens have to demand the our officials be held accountable for poor decisions- while they are in office-not through elections- it's to late then- the damage is done. And we as citizens have to demand that the media follow major issues-
and report facts- not sensational statistics that inflame the public so as to sway opinion- responsible reporting is finding facts from both sides of the issue- as was done in Ellman's article- and drawing conclusions- but also allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions- because both sides of the issue were represented.
But this is a digression form the topic at hand- Gov't responsibility to the infrastructure. According to the definition Ellman provided via -infrastructure means both transportation and communication- so McCain does reference the term correctly, highspeed internet is communication- however- it is hardly- in my opinion- critical infrastucture- certainly not as critical as collapsing bridges, and with the Infrastructure Report Card 2005 stating that a majority of our nations bridges have a grade of D- where is the plan to address that nearly failing score? Oh yes- the plan is wait for disaster and then fix it-
Apparently- those at the top- have forgotten the old adage- "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" - but here we go back to citizen responsibility- Do we really elect our President based on image as I have heard the press say? I sincerely hope we do not-because we cannot drive, eat or go to work with image- but we can accomplish the beginning of healing a sick infrastructure- and I use the term in first meaning- the internal foundation of a society- with a president that finds real solutions to the critical issues- and then actually manages to IMPLEMENT them- .

Anonymous said...

Obama MUST start responding to McCain and Palin's attacks. Narratives win elections, not ten point plans or issues.

I'm *BAFFLED* as to why Obama continues to give the Republicans a free pass on defining Palin?!? Is he really so foolish as to run the same election that John Kerry did?!? I give Obama another week to 10 days to respond to Republican accusations of eliticism, in their references to his "cling to god and guns" comment, to his not being one of *us* (read white).

If he doesn't, I can't see how he will win the states he needs to win. Somebody needs to give Obama a swift kick in the ass. If he doesn't work to define the Republicans, including Palin, as liars and hypocrites (playing up their pre-Palin comments against their contradictory post-Palin comments - a la John Stewart) the election is going to turn into a referendum on Obama's elitism (read blackness) rather than their outright hypocrisy.

Personalities and narratives win elections. Right now, the Republicans are threatening to win that game, hands down.

Obama needs to hit back. HARD.