Maxine Udall on our crumbling infrastucture

What passes for discussion about social choice and taxation in this country has become the sound of one hand clapping. The divisions in discourse have been strategically engineered by interests whose objectives I do not understand, but that I am sure are not the commonweal. The divisions are fueled by oblique appeals to base sentiments about race, class, and sexual preference that all of us harbor to a greater or lesser extent. They drive wedges on issues on which most would otherwise agree and from which most would benefit near equally from the same solution. While sentiments are used to divide us, a nation founded on the idea of a government of, by and for the people lists dangerously toward income inequality and its bedfellow, concentrated economic and political power, while we bequeath to our grandchildren a world in which they travel a network of gravel roads with barely a high school education, they live in cities and towns with failing sewers and water systems, and risk their and our great grandchildren’s lives crossing crumbling bridges and overpasses. But their taxes will be low. I wonder if they’ll thank us?

link: The Road to Serfdom Is Gravel – Maxine Udall (girl economist)

As you can imagine, I like this bit of writing very very much.

I have two critical reactions to this essay, and that the first is likely to get me into trouble with my readers from Michigan. I may have this attitude because I am from a part of the country which already basically died and became a landscape of corporate farms, meat slaughter, and meth labs–family farm country–and nobody cried over it.

So listening the death throes of rural and small-town Michigan is both painful and fascinating to me. It hurts to watch, and yet I am unsure of why it gets the press time it does when other parts of the country, which have been shrinking in population right along with them, don’t. It’s been interesting to watch Dan Kildee, Treasurer of Genessee County, Michigan, become a media darling planner-type as the “shrinking cities” guru for pointing out what everybody’s known about Flint since 1983: you might as well bulldoze large parts of it.

Which brings me to the critique I guess as a sustainable transport person I am supposed to make of Maxine Udall’s premise about letting roads crumble: that instead of roads, we’re building rail. Now, a more ardent believer in this line of thinking would merrily go on to declare that roads and cars are bad for us and the planet and our cities and they should be allowed to crumble.

Except that roads haven’t been bad to us. Even though we are obese and warming up the planet and whining about the recession, we’re living longer and much better than we did prior to the Interstate system. The system has done its job remarkably well for decades, far past the military justification for it, in terms of fostering real economic growth. Undoubtedly somebody will say “But but but rail investment causes EVEN MORE economic growth.” Well, it’d better at this stage, and it’s not like there is rail investment in cities occurring without the highway and freight support between cities we’ve always had–additional investment, like those made in rail, should yield additional productivity gains (if not, why invest?), and these rail investments would have less of impact if the complementary road infrastructure is allowed to decay.**

Which is why we shouldn’t let the road system crumble, anxious though many are to have brand-new systems like HSR.

And which is why China built both highways and HSR and intracity rail systems in places where it made sense, like Bejing.

**People who do these types of analyses never do them right. They’re always trying to convince me that rail has productivity gains or gains in growth, and my attitude is, well, great, thanks for that, but it’s not the question. The question is whether those gains are worth what we pay for them, and whether that money would been better invested in things like education which can also increase productivity and spur economic growth.

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