Saturday, July 23, 2011

"When You Hear Deficit, Think of Infrastructure"

Americans are known for such cheerful aphorisms as "whistle while you work" and "keep your eyes on the prize, hold on."  So, I've got one for you:

"When you hear deficit, think of infrastructure."

That's right, think of all the things the deficit hawks tell you we can't afford.

For example, earlier this year the 21st Century School Fund issued a fact sheet on the dismal state of our public school buildings.  The fact sheet reports:

What condition are our public school facilities in?

  • School districts have an estimated $271 billion of deferred building and grounds maintenance in their schools, excluding administrative facilities, which averages $4,883 per student.
  • In a 2010 state survey, 10 states (CO,DE,GA,HI,IL,KY,LA,ME,MT,NJ) reported needing an average of $4,400 per student for deferred maintenance.
  • Public school facility investment aligns with the wealth of the community the school is located in. Between 1995-2004 schools in low wealth zip codes had one third the funding for capital projects as schools in high wealth zip codes. 
What difference does facility condition make to children and adults?
  • Teachers in Chicago and Washington, DC reported missing 4 days annually because of health problems caused by adverse building conditions (with poor indoor air quality being the biggest problem).
  • A national survey of school nurses found over 40% of the nurses knew children and staff adversely impacted by avoidable indoor pollutants.
  • Students from 95 New York City Public Schools attended fewer days on average in schools with poor facilities and had lower grades in English Language Arts and Math which could be correlated to lower attendance.
  • Schools that implement energy-saving strategies–from following green building design to using energy-efficient building components to behavioral change – can reduce energy use by as much as one-third, resulting in major environmental and cost-savings benefits.
Q.  So, will our nation's crumbling schools be promptly fixed if the deficit hawks prevail?  "Not bloody likely...!!"   

So, you say, where's the "whistle while you work" in any of that?  "When you hear deficit, think of infrastructure."   The trick is to realize that infrastructure underspending is a deficit too.   

The costs that we have deferred by refusing to pay for needed infrastructure pile up on top of our students and communities in one massive unpaid bill.  It's a bill that Congress and the President -- and for that matter, the Bowles Deficit Commission -- have somehow decided not to think about.   

So, when someone says they want to whack $3 trillion out of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and other federal spending -- in the worst, most wrenching recession since the Great Depression -- what we should say is the following:

Honestly, I think you should consider going to a therapist.  A person who ignores the fundamental needs of his and her neighbors, when bridges and dams and schools are collapsing all around us, is not psychologically well.

The truth is, all these histrionics about the debt ceiling in Washington are a massive distraction from attending to the physical and human needs of the United States.   Of course we should rein in wasteful spending and fraud and programs that don't work.  But don't talk to me about that when you've just blown trillions on the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the extension of tax cuts for the country's wealthiest citizens.  You want to raise the eligibility age for Medicare to 67 when 55-year olds are being fired and downsized by the truckload?   I advise you to seek professional help.*

So, when you shift your attention to infrastructure and unmet human needs, you are thinking about the things that truly matter -- such as the health, well-being and productivity of students in public schools.   

Forget about the deficit.  "Cheer yourself up" by thinking about the decaying and broken infrastructure that can provide the opportunity and strategic focus to get Americans back to work.  Visualize the little kids in urban schools who are wheezing from asthma because our political leaders fail to act.   (Leave no child behind, eh?  But it's OK to warehouse them in a sick building?)

Then, visualize the many positive impacts that would flow from a national investment program to upgrade and replace crumbling, sick school buildings.  Visualize construction workers going home from work with freshly cashed paychecks, and stopping off at the supermarket to pick up some groceries.  Visualize cash registers ringing up higher totals, in turn creating jobs for other unemployed and worthy Americans.  Visualize workers with full-time jobs, paying taxes again, and bringing down the deficit the right way -- by working our way out of it.

It looks like the world is collapsing around us, because politicians are implementing the equivalent of "a public capital strike," where they refuse to invest in the future of our country.  

In that bleak landscape, the Drive for Decent Work urges you to protect your own mental health by engaging in wild, crazy, upside-down thinking.  Forget about the deficit.  When you hear deficit, think of infrastructure. Whistle while you work.

* In an article in the Nation, Kurt Vonnegut once pointed out that military spending is the worst addiction of them all, and that a 12-step program may be needed to wean addicts off their destructive habit.  We may need a similar recovery program for deficit hawks, who are prone to destructive binges, and rob innocent bystanders more aggressively then any heroin or cocaine addict.

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