Thursday, January 20, 2011

Public Works in a Privatized World

The other night some of us in the house watched a DVD about the creation of Oak Ridge, TN, during World War II – a critical component of the American war effort that led directly to the production of the first atomic bomb and thus to victory over Japan and peace after years of devastating war. Inasmuch as Oak Ridge is still very much there, seeing how Knoxville’s famous neighbor became what it is has current relevance as well as historical interest.

But there was something else – also quite currently relevant – that struck me as I watched the program. That was the sheer size and scale of the project, starting from scratch, quite literally creating a major research facility and an accompanying city (with all that entails) on what up until then had been Tennessee farmland. Of course, the entire American war effort in the 1940s was, by any standard, just such a monumental undertaking, mobilizing the resources and skills of an energized population. What struck me, of course, was how hard it would be to do something like that today – how hard even to imagine such an undertaking. Why should that be?

It’s tempting – too easily so - to answer that we were then an empire on the rise and are now an empire in decline. Even if that were unambiguously so, that still just begs the bigger question: why?

What is immediately obvious about Oak Ridge (and later great national projects like the 1960's Space Program) is that they were government-initiated. None of those projects would have happened had the resources and direction of the federal government not been available to energize a society still able to imagine undertaking great and visionary projects. That used to be the way it was in America. Going back at least to the construction of the 363-mile Erie Canal in New York State between 1817 and 1825, the United States was a nation of great undertakings, great public-works projects that built America and impressed the rest of the world. Today, however, as Paul Krugman lamented some weeks ago in the New York Times (reacting to New Jersey’s decision not to invest in a second rail tunnel under the Hudson River), we seem to have turned into “a nation whose politicians seem to compete over who can show the least vision, the least concern about the future and the greatest willingness to pander to short-term, narrow-minded selfishness.”

As a native New Yorker (and a train-lover), I was particularly saddened by that particular decision. The fact that it is a train tunnel at issue in that case is not just particularly poignant, however. It actually highlights what is a core component of the problem. The New York Review of Books recently printed an essay by the late Tony Judt (“Bring Back the Rails”) which emphasized the public character of railroads – as “decidedly public transport.”

The Erie Canal, victory in World War II, the space program, and countless other great enterprises of which Americans used to be justly proud were possible because of a vibrant public sphere – now sadly increasingly shrinking.

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