Unpaving is Progressive

Rachel Maddow and Paul Krugman, among others, have been in a tizzy recently about the unpaving of roads. One result of Congress’s refusal to renew counter-cyclical stimulus grants to state and local government is that fiscally strapped governments are cutting back on highway maintenance. Specifically, dozens of counties in several states are replacing asphalt roads with gravel. As Maddow summarized, in her August 9 broadcast:

“The Wall Street Journal reported recently on the growing number of places across the country where local governments are unpaving the roads. They are turning paved roads into gravel roads because paved roads too expensive to maintain. It is not one little town‘s whacky Luddite solution. It‘s happening in North Dakota, more than 100 miles of road in South Dakota, in 38 counties in Michigan, and it‘s happening in Ohio, and it‘s happening in Alabama, and it‘s happening in Pennsylvania.”

Liberal economist Paul Krugman described the process, in an August 8 NYT op-ed piece (“America Goes Dark“):   “A country that once amazed the world with its visionary investments in transportation, from the Erie Canal to the Interstate Highway System, is now in the process of unpaving itself …”

Jim Kunstler could have predicted this, of course — and did, in “The Long Emergency.” The system of subsidized infrastructure on which the car culture and the long-haul trucking industry depend is unsustainable. Absent intensive maintenance, asphalt highways deteriorate rapidly until axle-breaking potholes render them impassable to eighteen-wheelers. As state and local governments are plagued by increasingly severe fiscal crisis, as part of the death spasms of corporate capitalism, and Peak Oil drives up the price of asphalt for roads, governments will defer maintenance on more and more “secondary” roads, retreating and regrouping to a smaller and smaller core of highways that are maintained regularly enough to support heavy trucks.

Anyone who understands the basic principles of economics will tell you that when you subsidize an input to production, you also subsidize business models that rely more intensively on that input at the expense of those who do not. So the subsidy generates geometrically increasing demand for more subsidized inputs, faster than the government can appropriate money to pay for them, until the system finally breaks down under its own weight.

The interesting thing about all this is that it gets to the inner contradiction at the heart of Michael Moore-style “Progressivism.”

Where Progressivism differs from regular old vanilla-flavored 20th century liberalism is in its critique — however diluted the coating of greenwash — of large-scale corporate capitalism: Mass consumption, planned obsolescence, and the car culture.

But Progressivism also sees itself as champion of the New Deal model of consensus capitalism. And the two mix like oil and water.

On the one hand, “Progressive” governments spend lots and lots of money on “infrastructure” like the Interstate Highway System.

On the other hand, mass suburbanization and the car culture, and the big box retailers’ “warehouses-on-wheels” distribution model, are direct results of the Interstate. They were built, after all, by auto industry veteran Charlie “What’s good for GM” Wilson.

As neo-Marxists like Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff at the Monthly Review never tire of pointing out, the automobile-highway complex was one of several government-created sinks for surplus capital, whose main practical effect was to overcome monopoly capitalism’s chronic tendency toward overaccumulation and overproduction. In other words, it served the same purpose that Emmanuel Goldstein ascribed to the perpetual warfare state: Utilizing enormous amounts of surplus industrial capacity by sinking billions of dollars worth of its output to the bottom of the ocean or blasting it into the stratosphere.

So we’re treated to the world historical irony of seeing Rachel Maddow come down on the side of the “growth machines”: Local coalitions of real estate developers whose main activity is lobbying government for more “infrastructure.”

Note to Rachel: The local Rotary Club yahoos who lobby to pave over entire counties with highways and more highways are the BAD GUYS. You can’t simultaneously be against the car culture and be a cheerleader for more government-subsidized roads. You can’t be for Alfred Chandler’s managerial capitalism and the Detroit Michael Moore’s dad lived in ca. 1948, and also be for all the hippy-dippy “act locally” stuff. Some things simply don’t go together. Your reflexive love for government, and a priori assumption that it is a “progressive” force that represents “all of us working together,” is blinding you to the essential corporatism of most of what government actually does.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory