One of These Things Just Doesn’t Belong Here

Recently MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow quoted — with raised eyebrow — Republican presidential contender Rick Perry’s qualified endorsement of the transportation infrastructure projects in US president Barack Obama’s proposed jobs program.  It was “qualified” in the sense that he was willing to consider it as part of the same package with — or as a quid pro quo for — continuing or expanding refundable tax credits to the fossil fuel industries.

Maddow suggested, with her usual fairly good-natured sarcasm, that one of these things just doesn’t belong here. (When I say “good-natured,” I mean without that insufferable air of superiority that makes me want to bash Olbermann’s and O’Donnell’s skulls in.)

Actually, the two things go very well together.  They’re just two sides of the same coin.  Subsidies to infrastructure not funded entirely by user fees on those who impose the costs by using it, and subsidies to energy that make it artificially cheap, are both aspects of a phenomenon that’s at the structural foundations of our corporate-statist economy:  The artificial cheapness and artificial prevalence of long-distance distribution which have shifted our economy toward a centralized corporate model of artificially large firm size and artificially extended market areas. 

The 20th century industrial model of gigantic, capital-intensive, mass-production industry serving continental and global markets, relying on things like planned obsolescence and the military-industrial complex to keep the plants running at full capacity, is largely a product of a series of state interventions that started with railroad land grants in the Gilded Age.

There are things that just don’t go together, sure enough.  But they’re actually the mid-20th century liberal and Green strands of the contemporary “Progressive” movement.

If you watch MSNBC much, you’ve probably seen Maddow’s spots filmed in front of humongous bridges and hydroelectric dams, celebrating the Interstate Highway System and other Capital-I Infrastructure (cue in “Also Sprach Zarathustra”) projects.  Standing in front of some giant Stalinist blockbuster engineering project, she presents a stark contrast between those who say America can still do “great things” and those who think we can only afford the “small stuff.”

In Maddow’s universe, the only alternatives are “progressive” centralized mass-production economies governed on the Social Democratic model, and the kinds of banana republics falsely called the “free market” by people like Dick Armey and Rick Perry.  She seems to be completely unaware of a decentralist left, made up of people like Ralph Borsodi, E.F. Schumacher, Ivan Illich, Paul Goodman and Colin Ward — people who would denounce the Hoover Dam and the Interstate as corporatist collusion between big business and big government.

Maddow has to be wearing blinders not to see the connection between her mid-20th century, Schumpeter-Galbraith worship of gigantism and capital-intensiveness, and the car culture and “warehouses on wheels” big box retail model that are its direct byproducts.

Meanwhile, Ed Schultz is cheering for the revival of Detroit as a result of the Bush-Obama bailout.

Now, imagine if you will a successor to our current economic model of capital-intensive, large-batch mass-production with expensive product-specific machinery, and using push distribution techniques like planned obsolescence to keep industrial capacity fully utilized.  Its industrial processes look like Rube Goldberg contraptions, aimed at throwing stuff away as fast as possible so people will buy more stuff and keep the wheels turning — all to prevent catastrophic deflation of the investment economy and maximize the number of “jobs” that are the moral equivalent of digging holes and filling them back in.

In its place visualized a relocalized, lean economy of networked manufacturing, using less expensive general-purpose digitally controlled machine tools to make stuff in short production runs, constantly adjusting output to shifts in demand on a demand-pull basis.  Because machinery is cheap, flexible, and multiple purpose, there’s no imperative of maximizing utilization of capacity by producing long runs of one thing and then finding ways to compel people to buy it.

Without the patent system as a bulwark to planned obsolescence, without annual model changes, cars are a lot more likely to involve product ecologies sharing common platforms and modular components.

Without subsidies to sprawl and legally mandated monoculture development, more people will take the bus, or live within walking or bicycle distance of where they work and shop.

Now please explain how Schultz can have his ideal of an auto industry churning out eighteen million new units a year in this economic model.

People like Maddow and Schultz can make all the noises they want about “green jobs” and “walking softly on the earth.”  But it’s simply incompatible — as incompatible as matter with anti-matter — with the mid-twentieth century economic model of the Hoover Dam, the Interstate and the Detroit auto industry celebrated by people like her and Schultz.

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