By Angela Vullo
Aug. 24, 2019–On Sunday night, August 18, MSNBC completed a four-part docuseries called “American Swamp,” which included a segment on infrastructure entitled “Bill to Nowhere.” The segment detailed both the crisis condition of our national infrastructure and the gridlock in Washington which has failed to address this crisis. In one hour, Katy Tur and Jacob Soboroff presented a devastating picture of the condition of the country, beginning with the dire situation in New York City – from the morbid stench of the old Penn Station, to the over 100 year-old Portal Bridge and Hudson Tunnels connecting New York and New Jersey, where the electric cables in the tunnels could explode at any given moment, and do.
Then they dealt with a series of breakdowns of no less importance around the nation: the collapse of the Minneapolis bridge in 2007 that killed 13 people and injured 145; the Brent Spence bridge in Cincinnati, which connects Ohio and Kentucky and is losing concrete daily; the crisis of the Oroville Dam spillway in California; and the most recent water disaster in Newark, New Jersey, where citizens are being offered bottled water, to protect them from the unsafe levels of lead in the drinking water. Newark, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave drinking water a D in their latest report card, and is saying that $1 trillion is needed to fix our national water system alone. The MSNBC series interviewed both Congressman Peter DeFazio, Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and New York Senator Chuck Schumer. DeFazio made the embarrassing observation that Third World countries put more percentage of their GDP toward infrastructure than the United States. Schumer confirmed that “rail and Amtrak have always been federally funded as they are national.” He warned that a shutdown of the Hudson Tunnels, where 20% of the nation’s GDP travels daily, would be catastrophic and “could itself cause a recession.” This warning, coupled with the recent turbulence in the financial markets, should be more than enough to force our lawmakers to act.
The Play’s the Thing . . .
On April 30, there appeared to be hope on the horizon when President Trump met with the Democratic leadership and put $2 trillion on the table to address the national infrastructure crisis. However, three weeks later, Trump blew up a follow-up meeting with excuses, and stormed out in a huff. Speaker Pelosi commented, “Trump doesn’t want to pay for it.”
As our infrastructure continues to get worse, and our leaders squabble over where the money will come from, the answer is staring us in the face from the Broadway Marquee of “Hamilton.” Will the play catch the conscience of our Congress to use the ideas of Alexander Hamilton for their real purpose?
A good chunk of our problems could be solved if Congress issued a bill to create a National Infrastructure Bank (NIB), modeled on Hamilton’s 1st and 2nd Bank of the United States. Over the last year, support has been growing throughout the country for such a bank, from state and local elected officials, labor and grassroots organizations, but Congress has yet to understand it and respond.
Of course, infrastructure is just one of many problems that face the country. We could lay out a laundry list, whether it be gun violence, drug overdoses, stagnant wages, household debt, and on and on, but what’s the point? Unless we get to the root of the problem, the solutions are not serious, and building a safe, modern infrastructure is at the root of all solutions.
A 50-Year Train Wreck
Anyone who has been on the planet for any period of time knows that this breakdown did not happen yesterday. In fact, some of our rail and water infrastructure goes back 150 years to the Civil War era. But, for time’s sake, let’s focus on the last fifty years.
In 1968, both Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy shined a light on the ugly conditions of life, from poverty to racism and violence. Both leaders were heavily involved in campaigns to bring economic justice to the most disadvantaged.
In January 2010, two years after the 2008 crash, which hit the middle class hard, The Nation magazine published an article on King’s overall economic policy, which highlighted some crucial elements.
It’s important to get to the core of King’s thinking during his 1968 call for the Poor People’s Campaign,” where he focused on “joblessness and economic deprivation.”
King made the argument during one of his last sermons, given at the National Cathedral on March 31, five days before his assassination: “If a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.” Such thinking echoed that of FDR, when he launched his massive infrastructure programs during the New Deal.
King believed that the answer was to “confront the power structure massively.” He did so by calling for a “massive Federal Public Works program to provide jobs for all the unemployed,’ and spoke of the “twin evils of discrimination and economic deprivation.”
Just as Dr. King, Robert F. Kennedy, in his “Poverty Tour,” identified the deprivation caused by inadequate housing, lack of food, no schooling, and insufficient clothing he felt the need, during this presidential campaign, to bring these conditions to the full attention of the American people. He warned, “I believe that as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil.”
Unfortunately, since then, inequality has only grown. The Economic Policy Institute reports that, in 1962, a family unit in the top one percent of U.S. households had approximately 125 times the wealth of an average household. By 2004, it had risen to 190 times.
Jobs for the “social good”
The Nation article also included King’s criticism of “Johnson’s War on Poverty for being too piecemeal.” King wrote, “While housing programs, job training and family counseling were not themselves unsound, all have a fatal disadvantage. The programs have never proceeded on a coordinated basis”… “At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived.”
King went on to attack the “fragmentary and spasmodic reforms.” He advocated that the government provide full employment. “We need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.”
“We realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will.” He called for “a guaranteed annual income pegged to the median income of society, not the lowest levels of income.”
King’s economic conception was very different than the proposals today to merely raise the minimum wage, or even a “jobs for all” program. King believed in the necessity to develop an individual’s human potential as the basis for a fulfilled life, and that each individual has the power within them to make a great contribution to society.
RFK’s Poverty Tour
Over the course of what became known as his “poverty tour,” Senator Kennedy visited the Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky and western Pennsylvania, California’s Central Valley. and the Mississippi Delta. Among whites, blacks, and Latinos alike, Kennedy found a nation within our nation in need of aid, and wrongs that needed righting.
In June 2018, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Senator’s assassination, Americanmagazine.com covered RFK’s tour.
The article correlates the poverty in 1974 with that of forty years later.
“As for racial differences, in 1974, 30 percent of African-Americans and 23 percent of Latinos lived in poverty, compared with 8 percent of whites. This gap persists, according to 2014 data from the Pew Research Center, with 26 percent of African-Americans, 24 percent of Latinos and 10 percent of whites living in poverty.”
“California now ranks 20th under the traditional poverty rate but is first under the Supplemental Poverty Measure.”
“Kentucky now has the fourth highest poverty rate among the 50 states, up from sixth in 1970. Health outcomes and mortality rates are also poor here compared with the United States as a whole, in part because of high rates of obesity, diabetes and opioid addiction.”
“Mississippi had the highest poverty rate in both 1970 and 2016. … While the state’s overall poverty rate has fallen, it remains above 30 percent in most Delta counties, which now also face sustained population loss. In 2016, Louisiana and New Mexico were right behind, each with a 20 percent poverty rate.”
“Note: If counted as a state, Puerto Rico would have the highest poverty rate in 2016, at 44 percent. The District of Columbia, at 19 percent, has a higher poverty rate than all but three states. Under the Supplemental Poverty Measure, the District of Columbia, at 22 percent, has a higher poverty rate than any of the 50 states.”
U.S. Labor Market Slowing
Recent media have begun to take apart, at least in part, some of the disinformation on the success of the so-called Trump recovery.
It is now revealed that the U.S. created 500,000 fewer jobs since 2018 than previously reported, and the manufacturing sector contracted for the first time since 2009. It looks like the Trump tax cuts haven’t worked as promised.
In addition, according to an Aug. 20 report on CBSN Live, U.S. Steel has announced that it is laying off about 200 workers at a Michigan factory, which could last longer than six months. Along with layoffs, U.S. Steel’s stock price has plummeted more than 70% since March of 2018, when Trump first announced plans to slap tariffs on steel imports.
Not only do these job losses reflect a slowdown, but overall productivity is still hovering at .5%, compared to 2.5% during FDR’s New Deal and the country’s all time high of 3.5% during the WW II mobilization. During both periods, Franklin Roosevelt used the Reconstruction Finance Corporation as a National Bank.
Although these figures indicate a decline and overall malaise in our work force, they don’t really get to the root of what’s really going on. In contrast to just “lowering unemployment,” the NIB would bring into existence a new quality of job. Without creating a new dynamic, like the Kennedy space program, our workers, especially the youth, are not inspired to work, and are dropping out of the work force. The NIB calls for a return to a Davis-Bacon prevailing wage, with a big emphasis on the Building Trades’ apprentice program that would put our youth to work by day while training them at night. Rebuilding our nation’s transportation grid with high-speed rail, or our power grid with nuclear power, would capture the imagination of the upcoming generation to want to study science and engineering.
As the Nation’s Foundation Disintegrates, Death Rate Soars
Without such decisive action, the evidence is overwhelming that the nation is in a death spiral.
In 2018, the New York Times reported that “last year was the third consecutive year that the rate of firearm deaths rose in the United States.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Times said, “More people died from firearm injuries in the United States last year than in any other year since at least 1968, and nearly two-thirds were suicides.”
“Suicides have historically made up most deaths by firearms in the United States, research shows.”
“Suicide overall has been on the rise for more than a decade and is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, according to the health statistics center.”
But suicides are not only committed with guns. “Among other public health problems, drug overdose deaths have also been surging. About 70,000 people died from drug overdoses last year – almost double the number that died from guns.”
Both articles confirm why life expectancy has fallen for three consecutive years for the first time in U.S. history. They reflect an alarming spread of despair.
As the body count rises, every American should be shaking their heads, wondering what went wrong?
Those who were around in the 1960s must remember the famous lyrics of Bob Dylan.
“… How many deaths will it take ‘til he knows that too many people have died? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ the wind.”
Will 2020 See Winds of Change?
Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy offered us a ray of hope fifty years ago, but their unfinished business has left us staring into the abyss.
Four times in our nation’s history we have stood at a similar existential crossroads as today, plagued by depression and war. Whether at our nation’s inception, the Civil War, or the Great Depression and WW II, without our country making a dramatic turn it would not have survived and will not survive now.
In every previous case, our courageous leaders inspired our citizens to move forward, by promoting a comprehensive economic program for progress, using a Hamiltonian National Infrastructure Bank. It’s time to take up that mantle and use a similar bank to restructure the entire system, putting the economic power back into the hands of labor and the middle class where it belongs. A $4 trillion infrastructure bank would create 25 million, high-paying union jobs building the latest 21st Century technology in infrastructure. And this infrastructure would be for the nation as a whole. Congressman James Clyburn has a bill called 10/20/30, which designates that 10% of the budget would be authorized for those parts of the nation where 20% of the population has lived in poverty for 30 years or more. This conception has been incorporated into the bylaws of a proposed draft bill for a National Bank.
Whether Trump’s presidency is defeated by a “recession,” in whatever way it manifests itself, is not the issue, as most of our country is already living in life-threatening conditions. The issue is: will the country significantly change direction to pick up the mission we abandoned fifty years ago? Some of the presidential candidates are evoking FDR and the New Deal, focusing on wealth redistribution, enhancing social programs, taking on the corporations, but none of the candidates have captured the real essence of what Roosevelt actually did to create a more productive work force.
The winds of change have begun to blow. 76% of Americans disapprove of what is going on in Washington. When the citizens of Los Angeles were polled on paying taxes to fund infrastructure, especially a mass transit system to eliminate some of the cars, 71% were willing to pay to improve “the quality of life.” And ironically, the longer the project, the more they support it.
When will our leaders read the warning signs and listen to the population? Who will be the congressman to introduce a bill for the bank? Who will the presidential candidate be to go with this winning platform?
Robert Kennedy said, “You’re happiest while you’re making the greatest contribution.”
With all the solutions being offered to the American people, there’s only one that matters, and that is recapturing the mission that RFK and Dr. King left behind.
Recapturing that mission would make America happy again.