Private Affluence and Public Squalor Revisited

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        By almost every objective measure, the United States is a country in decline, as elected officials at the federal, state and local level continue to reduce investments in the public sector that are essential for economic growth and productivity.

 

            In 2012, the Brookings Institute reported that total government employment - i.e., the sum of state, local, and federal - employment had decreased by over 580,000 jobs since the end of the recessionthat officially ended in July 2009, and that state and local governments, confronted by balanced-budget requirements, falling tax revenues, and greater demand for public services, continued to fire teachers, police officers, and other public employees.

 

            In 2011 alone, state and municipal governments cut nearly 250,000 jobs. Between December of 2014 and March of 20015, the number of state and federal jobs continued to decrease according to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

 

            In addition, the U.S. Department of Transportation reports that more than 25 percent of America's nearly 600,000 bridges need significant repairs or are burdened with more traffic than they were designed to carry. The Federal Highway Administration reports that  approximately a third of America's major roadways are in substandard condition - and have been significant factor in a third of the more than 43,000 traffic fatalities that occur in the United States every year.

 

            At the state level, the Texas Transportation Institute estimates that traffic jams caused by insufficient infrastructure waste  4 billion hours of commuters' time and nearly 3 billion gallons of gasoline a year because of a lack of public transportation.

 

            A survey by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials has found that the number of dams in the United States that could fail has grown 134% since 1999 to 3,346, and that more than a 1,300 of the damns are considered to pose a "high-hazard."  In addition, more than a third of all dam failures or near failures since 1874 have happened in just the last decade.

 

            According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, aging sewer systems spill an estimated 1.26 trillion gallons of untreated sewage every single year, resulting in an estimated 50.6 billion dollars in cleanup costs.

 

            The Advisory Council of American Society of Civil Engineers assigns the grades every four years for infrastructure based upon eight criteria: capacity, condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public safety, resilience, and innovation. Since 1998, the Advisory Council have been reported to be near failing, averaging only Ds, because of  delayed maintenance and underinvestment.  The 2013 Report Card graded America's cumulative GPA for infrastructure at a D+.

 

           Most recently, a day after the Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia, the GOP dominated House of Representatives voted cut more than $1 billion from President Obama's $2.45 billion Amtrak funding request.  Defending the GOP's vote, a testy Speaker John Boehner declared, "Well, obviously, it's not about funding. The train was going twice the speed limit. Adequate funds were there, no money's been cut from rail safety. And it's hard for me to imagine that people take the bait on some of the nonsense that gets spewed around here."  Left unaddressed by a timid media and craven politicians was any acknowledgment of the data which showed that, while the U.S. spent a miserly $1.9 million to subsidize Amtrak passenger rail service last year, China spent $199 billion maintaining, improving and expanding its railroads.

 

             Despite the virtual collapse of this country's infrastructure and the precipitous decline in  public sector jobs that have historically provided the educational, health, transportation, scientific research/ technical and public safety underpinnings that have been essential predicates for economic progress, most Americans remain oblivious or in denial.

 

            In February of this year, President Obama unveiled a $4 trillion fiscal year 2016 budget that proposed to lift spending limits on national security and some discretionary domestic spending.  A month later, the GOP responded with its plan that would add nearly $40 billion in "emergency" war funding to the defense budget for next year and that contained more than $1 trillion in savings from unspecified cuts to programs like food stamps and welfare. The GOP plan also demanded full repeal of the Affordable Care Act, including the tax increases that finance the health care law.

 

            "A budget is a moral document; it talks about where your values are,"  Representative Rob Woodall, Republican of Georgia and a member of the Budget Committee, piously proclaimed. "We've never had the opportunity to partner with the Senate to provide real certainty."

 

            But if a budget is a moral document, Senator Bernie Sanders correctly notes that the "The U.S. currently spends more money on the military than the next nine countries combined. Yet, despite some 45 million Americans living in poverty, 35 million without health care and veterans throughout the country sleeping out on the streets, the only program that the Republicans want to increase funding for is the military. Why?"

 

            At a time when the public sector is being gutted, Philip Bump reports in The Washington Post that the top 25 hedge fund managers earned more than all kindergarten teachers in U.S. The estamated158,000 kindergarten teachers in the United States, earned an average teacher salary of $53,480, for a collective income of about $8.5 billion for 2012.  By contrast, the 25 top hedge fund managers found that the 25 most successful managers were paid $11.62 billion in 2014.

           

            The continued decline in this country's investment in public goods is directly attributable to the "market-based" mythology that dominates current American political discourse. That mythology, which extolls unfettered Social Darwinism, seeks to minimize the role of government on the theory that, all evidence to the contrary, government is the enemy of prosperity. Not surprisingly, these same minimalists also deny the notion of a  separate public interest or choose to define it, if at all, as merely an aggregation of private interests seeking to maximize their self-interests.

 

        John Kenneth Galbraith published The Affluent Society in 1956. In that important little book, the economist worried that the United States had become a nation that tolerated the existence of "private affluence and public squalor." Little could Galbraith imagine that by 2015 the gap between private affluence and public squalor would grow so large that the United States would come to resemble the Victorian England that Charles Dickens chronicled and ridiculed.  

 


   

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