13 October 2010

Storm in a Teacup

I've been at a loss for words recently. I've got the skeletons of a few posts rattling around in my brain but I've been too crippled by a Jimmy Carter-sized malaise to flesh them out. Every morning I read (too much) news and it fills me with dread. I'm not a depressive person by nature...I'm often characterized as being overly negative, but I see myself as a realist with a utopian streak more than a pessimist. That's probably what has drawn me into the planning profession (or at least the fringes of it), the promise of making concrete, positive changes on society, however small. That said, my aim is not social engineering. The earliest cities grew organically, but as societies became more advanced and complex it became clear that some sort of method needed to be applied to the madness. The desire to escape the reality of life as it existed in the slums of Chicago/New York/London of the nineteenth century (or the Lagos/Manila/Mumbai/etc. of the 2010's) is as much to blame for our modern planning ills as any government-subsidized highway program.

This is at the root of why libertarian populist movements like the Tea Party seriously disturb me. I share some of their reservations about "big government", but for me those spring from more of a post-Watergate/X-Files angle than a "taxes are bad, mmkay?" platform. It's the military-industrial complex, domestic intelligence agencies, corporate influence and religious zealotry, all cloaked in the unassailable armor of American Exceptionalism, that terrify me, not the wonks at the Department of Transportation or the do-gooders at the EPA. When I read that an (admittedly tiny) group of Tea Party activists are now backing Chris Christie as their candidate du jour, almost solely based on his decision to defund the construction of a new rail tunnel across the Hudson River, it gave me pause. Infrastructure should not be the enemy of the people. The demand is great, and yet the "free" market is not about to step in and offer us some salvation from our national transportation nightmare. Some projects may be misguided or overpriced, but a truly open and transparent debate process would separate the wheat from the pork. There are plenty of ways of reducing the size of government (perhaps a few of the 700,000 civilian employees at the Department of Defense?) or cutting spending (corn syrup subsidies?), but when human lives are lost in bridge collapses, when congestion causes countless millions of dollars to be squandered in lost productivity and wasted fuel, and when anybody with half a brain can tell you we need to wean ourselves from fossil fuels for a host of reasons both environmental and strategic, my level of appall at the arrogance of the opposition is matched only by my disgust at the ineffectiveness of our supposed champions.

My already fleeting optimism is wearing ever thinner. The coming election looks to be shaping up along good old-fashioned scapegoating and fearmongering lines, rather than any serious discussion of What Must Be Done. I think it's a myth that modern political discourse is cruder than in the Good. Ole. Days, but the levels of anti-intellectualism and anti-science are just straight-up depressing. I think we might have reached Idiocracy levels a few centuries early.

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