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Fwd: Highway to hell revisited

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  • Mark Abraham
    ... From: David Goldberg Date: Sat, Feb 28, 2009 at 9:31 PM Subject: Highway to hell revisited To: undisclosed-recipients An interesting
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 1, 2009
      ---------- Forwarded message ----------
      From: David Goldberg <dgoldberg@>
      Date: Sat, Feb 28, 2009 at 9:31 PM
      Subject: Highway to hell revisited
      To: undisclosed-recipients

      An interesting perspective coming from an editor of a conservative
      publication like The Weekly Standard. Using the ills of highway-driven
      sprawl -- aren't liberals the only ones who care about that? -- to
      slap Obama, because he has called for investment in infrastructure "on
      the scale of" the interstate highway system. Refreshing, though, to
      see the more honest conservative appraisal of the Eisenhower legacy
      that we've always thought was merited.  And a dandy read.

      Highway to hell revisited

      By Christopher Caldwell

      Published: February 27 2009 19:19 | Last updated: February 27 2009 19:19

      “History reminds us,” President Barack Obama told both houses of the
      US Congress on Tuesday night, “that at every moment of economic
      upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold
      action and big ideas.” By “the nation”, Mr Obama means “the
      government”. We can tell by the episodes he uses to make his point:
      the establishment of universal public education, the GI Bill of Rights
      and – alluded to but not named – the Highway Act of 1956, at the time
      of its passage the largest public works project in US history.

      Mr Obama’s praise for the Highway Act is disturbing. In arguments over
      his stimulus package and his preliminary budget released on Thursday,
      Republicans have made the lazy assumption that government intervention
      in the economy can never succeed. Mr Obama shows signs of the opposite
      error – believing it can never fail.

      The Highway Act probably has more defenders than detractors. But Mr
      Obama should be among the latter. The act, which budgeted $25bn in
      federal money to build 41,000 miles of motorway, exacerbated the very
      problems Mr Obama has been most eager to solve – spoliation of the
      environment, dependence on foreign oil, overburdening of state and
      local budgets, abandonment of the inner-city poor and reckless
      speculation in real-estate development, to name a few.

      A lot of people complain today about the rump of Republican
      disbelievers in Keynes, feckless though they may be, who fiddle while
      Rome burns. There was no hint of such heresy in 1956. The Senate
      passed the bill 89-1. Otherwise, the political climate bore some
      resemblance to our own: conformism bred of confusion. A 40,000 mile
      highway network had been on the wish list of the armed forces since
      1944. Eisenhower was a big backer, and had hopes of justifying it as a
      stimulus during the recession of 1954. That downturn was long past
      when the bill came to a vote, but the vested interests remained, and
      so did the fear that one’s constituents might think it a bit communist
      to vote against a highway bill.

      Eisenhower had brought in General Lucius Clay, architect of the Berlin
      Airlift and a board member of General Motors, to make the pitch for an
      earlier version. The US required highways, General Clay said, “to
      disperse our factories, our stores, our people; in short, to create a
      revolution in living habits”. The bill, for all its expense, seemed a
      no-brainer, and legislators cast their votes without even a hint of a
      sense that they might not know what they were doing, or that sums of
      money big enough to do your country much good are also big enough to
      do it much harm.

      In 1958, the great journalist William Whyte coined the term “sprawl”,
      in an article for Fortune. He noted with horror that, a mere two years
      after the Highway Act, “already huge patches of once green countryside
      have been turned into vast, smog-filled deserts that are neither city,
      suburb, nor country.” Developments were concentrated in random
      political no-man’s-lands near interchanges and exits. Road lobbyists
      and real estate developers colluded against meaningful regulation and
      planning, with the result, Whyte wrote, that “development is being
      left almost entirely in the hands of the speculative builder”.

      As the historian Owen Gutfreund wrote in 20th-Century Sprawl (Oxford,
      2004), even before the passage of the Highway Act, most US highway
      spending was promoted by industry lobbies masquerading as
      consumer-advocacy groups, such as the National Highway Users’
      Conference. The result was a distorted market and tax system. Just as
      today’s internet businesses get more favourable tax treatment than
      bricks-and-mortar shops, highways were effectively subsidised. Sales
      taxes on autos were made tax deductible. Gasoline taxes were specially
      earmarked to road building (as they still are).

      The Act speeded up the erosion of public transportation
      infrastructure, which the federal government is now spending dearly to
      revive. Freight trains had to compete against trucks that sped along
      taxpayer-funded roads. Highways marred the landscape. Some of the
      prettiest neighbourhoods in the US – Mt Adams in Cincinnati, the North
      End of Boston – were effectively walled off from the cities they once
      belonged to, and the encirclement of Detroit’s neighbourhoods by
      highways is often cited as a primary cause of its decline. Plans for a
      superhighway to be laid right through the heart of San Francisco were
      blocked only due to massive local protests.

      Whyte warned that sprawl was not just bad aesthetics but bad
      economics. A subtler and more serious problem than blight was that,
      for local authorities, the cost of providing utilities and other
      services was exorbitant. “There is not only the cost of running sewers
      and water mains and storm drains out to Happy Acres,” Whyte wrote,
      “but much more road, per family served, has to be paved and
      maintained.” The infrastructure network that came out of the Highway
      Act had higher overheads than the one it replaced. It became a
      bottomless pit of spending.

      The largest building project in Mr Obama’s Recovery Act is $27bn for
      roads, and there have been no complaints that the government will have
      a hard time finding things to spend it on. The US has big economic
      problems. But they have been made worse, and harder to resolve, by a
      half-century in which, at federal urging, the country was misbuilt.

      There is an inherent bias in favour of government projects. The
      successes can be mythologised through commemoration, goading future
      generations to imitate them. The failures are fixable only through
      equally extensive projects to undo them. This makes it easy to forget
      that there is no social or economic problem so big that a poorly
      targeted government intervention cannot make it worse.

      The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard
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