Publick Occurrences 2.0

October 19, 2012

Update on Georgia Archives

Filed under: Government,Historians,Joe Adelman's Posts — Joseph M. Adelman @ 6:57 am

Via Mark Cheathem at Jacksonian America, and for those keeping score at home, the Governor and Secretary of State have announced that they’ve scraped together enough pennies ($125,000 worth) to keep the State Archives open through the end of the fiscal year. According to the press release issued by the Governor’s office, the funding will be the first step in a transition process for the Archives:

The extra funding provides for Georgia State Archives to be open to the public through June 30 of next year. On July 1,  the Georgia Archives will be transferred to University System of Georgia, pending approval of the move by the General Assembly. This transfer will include appropriations required for operation and assets of the Georgia Archives. Additional staff will be provided by USG at that time. Deal and Kemp intend to find efficiencies by consolidating the Archives under the University System of Georgia, just as the state has sought to do with the library system.

It is a good thing that the archives will remain open (that is, back to its schedule of public access on Fridays and Saturdays). It is a logical move to place the archives under the purview of the state university system, which has its own extensive library system.

But given the funding cuts that have hit higher education in the past decade, I’m not holding my breath that this puts the State Archives on a permanent sure footing.


June 19, 2012

The Weakness of Being a Herd of Cats

Power grabs are nasty, brutish, and quick.

They’re intended to overwhelm and surprise the victims. To cause confusion. To frustrate your enemies’ abilities to mount counterattacks.

What we’ve been watching unfold at the University of Virginia during the last two weeks is a nothing less than a coup, carefully planned and staged when nobody was in town and when nobody was watching.

I have no original reporting to add, and I think Timothy Burke nailed it in his post about the incredible ham-handedness of the Board of Visitors as a horde of micro-managers who are either treating UVA in a way they’d never treat their own private businesses, or who are so inept that they’re walking proof that wealth is mainly based on luck in marriage and genetics.

What’s striking to me is how familiar this should be to historians. We’ve seen appointments of ‘midnight judges,’ a Saturday night massacre, a night of the long knives. We’ve seen Bush-Gore, Hayes-Tilden, Adams-Jefferson.

When he learned that UVA Rector Helen Dragas – a real estate executive – had gone to UVA’s President Teresa Sullivan on the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day weekend to tell her that 8 of the 15 members of the university’s board were prepared to demand her resignation, a friend of mine thought it couldn’t have been true. Eight of fifteen was “bare majority” and “nobody” would run a university like that. It was too divisive. It flew in the face of everything a liberal education was supposed to stand for at Thomas Jefferson’s school.

Yet some people do operate that way; some just did.

We’re not used to thinking that the bare-knuckle power plays which are routine in politics, corporate boardrooms, and statecraft could be so portable. It’s shocking to think that one rector, weeks before the expiration of her term, would do something like this. Sullivan was in her second year, and by press accounts, Dragas and several members of the university’s business school community began working on what they called the “project” to have her fired. Who knows if Sullivan suspected that Dragas was telephoning board members individually, holding meetings to dodge open records laws and evade other board members who would expose her sleazy m.o. Dragas timed the meeting with Sullivan to coincide with the holiday weekend, after students had left town, when many faculty were away and several big money donors on the board were either overseas or – in one case – recuperating from surgery. To this day, she has offered no clear account of why Sullivan was removed. No specific complaints, no particular flaws or faults. Nothing.

There was a protest on the university’s famed Lawn yesterday. The faculty senate had a meeting with Dragas at which she gave no clear explanation for Sullivan’s removal. They held an overwhelming ‘no confidence’ vote in Dragas soon after.

What’s interesting to me is that Dragas doesn’t care. Just look at this portion of the statement she issued late in the day yesterday:

We recognize that, while genuinely well-intended to protect the dignity of all parties, our actions too readily lent themselves to perceptions of being opaque and not in keeping with the honored traditions of this University. For that reason, let me state clearly and unequivocally: you – our U.VA. family – deserved better from this Board, and we have heard your concerns loud and clear.

In case you’re not fluent in Bullshit, that statement is what it looks like when you extend your middle digit in the direction of your iPhone and ask Siri to transcribe it. Dragas has no intention of explaining her reasons. It doesn’t matter to her whether we, or the students, or the faculty, or the alums, or the other members of the Board don’t know why this was hatched.

We’ve been lulled into thinking that a university operates on a consensus model, and maybe we’re about to witness why it should. But my hunch is that trustees will learn from this. Dragas acts like this because she can, and as long as she can, she will. It doesn’t matter to her whether the faculty senate is upset, because right now the faculty senate seems to have no legal standing to do much of anything except pass resolutions with no binding authority or quit their posts.

We like to think that we can rely on the good intentions of board members whose ostensible and historical role has been to serve as caretakers. But we are ill-equipped to deal with a board that goes rogue. By some media accounts, Dragas and her cabal want UVA to start closing departments and to begin shifting 1st- and 2nd-year instruction to an online format. Why? Because several of her conspirators are invested in an online education provider and want that company to be given a preferential role in transforming UVA’s curriculum.

If you wanted to have a discussion about the goals of online ed or the structure of departments, you’d have that conversation with people who work in academia. But if you wanted to just grab some revenue streams for your pals, this is how you’d do it, because at the end of the day you don’t really care about the content or the consequence for the faculty, students, or university – you only care about the money pipeline.

I keep hoping that some rich member of the UVA Board of Visitors is going to step forward and publicly call for Dragas to resign and for Sullivan to be reinstated.

But that hasn’t happened, and even if it did, it would only paper over the enormous problem that’s been exposed during the last two weeks:

Faculty governance institutions, as they are currently constituted, are far too weak to stand up to board members who see the university as an oil deposit or a copper vein. I suspect that Dragas’ enemies on the board know they’ve been beaten. I hope that the smarter ones among them are taking the time to learn the ins and outs of the university’s rulebooks and the Virginia statutes concerning higher ed. I hope the Faculty Senate is lawyering up for a fight.

Remember how we used to wonder how we were going to answer the argument that the university should be run like a corporation?

It turns out that you can just skip over the conversation part.

If this can happen at UVA – and, let’s just say it – IT DID – we should all feel the fierce urgency of now. We’re not used to thinking of ourselves collectively – in practice, many of us are Mugwumps and anti-Federalists – but we’d better start.

The people coming after our institutions, our students, and our jobs are organized, committed, and highly motivated. The rules matter, and if we’re going to survive as a profession, we’d better learn how to play hardball and start figuring out ways to make it impossible for future Helen Dragases to unravel 200 years of traditions in service of a crassly self-interested self-enrichment scheme.


March 14, 2012

Grounded into Dust

George Inness, "The Lackawanna Valley," 1855, National Gallery of Art

Phillip Longman and Lina Khan have a fascinating article in the Washington Monthly about how airline deregulation has not only made flying miserable for all of us, but is having an absolutely devastating impact on some of America’s inland cities.

The authors find a parallel story in the development of railroads during the nineteenth century.

Dealing with high fixed costs is a challenge common to virtually all networked industries, and in one way or another, America has grappled with the problem throughout the country’s history. The Founders understood that private enterprise could not by itself provide broadly distributed postal service because of the high cost of delivering mail to smaller towns and far-flung cities, and so they wrote into the Constitution that a government monopoly would take on the challenge, providing the necessary cross-subsidization.

Throughout most of the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, generations of Americans similarly struggled with how to maintain an equitable and efficient railroad network, and for much the same reason. During various railroad bubbles, exuberant investors would build lines to the farthest corners of continent, much like start-up airlines in the 1980s. But over time, the high fixed cost of railroading and the basic economics of any networked industry left all but the core of the emerging system unprofitable before it received the benefits of government regulation.

The authors then quote Charles Francis Adams’s Railroads: Their Origin and Problems (1878), in which he observed that Americans came to the conclusion that railroads weren’t like other industries, and government regulation was necessary to smooth out price discrimination and “local inequalities.”  The authors continue,

The response was the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887—a move that most Americans viewed as essential to preserving free enterprise and their way of life. The ICC took on the task of moderating the price discrimination that railroads practiced, evening out the burden among different regions and classes of passengers and shippers in a way that allowed railroads to earn enough money to cover their fixed costs, improve their infrastructure, and give their investors a fair reward. In effect, the profits railroads earned on some highly trafficked long-haul routes came to be rechanneled by government policy to cover the cost of providing balanced and affordable service throughout the country. Railroads were regulated much as telephones and power companies came to be—as natural monopolies that would be allowed to remain in private hands and earn a profit, but not at the cost of skewing the overall efficiency, balance, and fairness of American economy.

Longman and Khan argue that Americans may have to search for similar solutions when it comes to the airline industry.  Anyway, read the whole thing.



February 17, 2012

Honoring Philip Lampi and A New Nation Votes


Yesterday afternoon, NEH Chairman James Leach came to Worcester for a special ceremony to honor the work of Philip Lampi, a longtime staff member at the American Antiquarian Society and the compiler of the data in the A New Nation Votes database.

Lampi has spent the last forty years, as he described at the ceremony, collecting election results for every election held in the United States between 1787 and 1825, from presidential elections to state and local contests in the twenty-four states in the Union during that period. Lampi collected the data by hand, mostly on visits to hundreds of archives around the eastern United States, combing through newspapers and official state records (in the days before much of this material was digitized). The material, Lampi said, was a “gold mine” that no one had ever examined closely. The event honored Lampi’s tenacity in collecting the data—speaker and sometime collaborator Andrew Robertson described him as a “hero of history” and Leach said he was an “alchemist” for what he made from the “gold” that he found. (For more info on the ceremony, see this profile in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.)

In the last eight years, AAS has received several grants from NEH to digitize the records in coordination with Tufts, making that data publicly available for historians to use. I have a hunch that Jeff will have more to say about using the database for research purposes, but I will just say for now that it’s an amazing resource and opens a range of previously unanswerable research questions. You could see, for example, county-level results for the hotly contested 1799 Pennsylvania gubernatorial election. Or, as project coordinator Erik Beck noted, you can gather additional information about characters we already know something about. He highlighted Sean Wilentz’s Rise of American Democracy, in which Wilentz briefly profiles Edmund Ruffin, who, as a 67-year-old private in the Palmetto Guards, was given the honor of firing the first shot on Fort Sumter. Check the database, and there he is as a young man winning a seat in the Virginia state senate. I’m sure a number of readers have used the database and worked with Phil—please feel free to share your stories in the comments section.

Data is currently available for a number of states, and being rapidly updated for others. No word on when the project will be completely finished; everyone seems to have learned that lesson.

Lampi is the first recipient of the Chairman’s Commendation, which is more than appropriate. From all of us here at Publick Occurrences, congratulations Phil, and thank you.


UPDATE: For more on the impact of Lampi’s work, see “Myths of the Lost Atlantis,” a series run in this space in 2008.

Photo credit: Abigail Hutchinson, AAS


January 19, 2012

“By securing the copies”

I’ve been going in circles about copyright, intellectual property, and the role of history in debating them. I started a post yesterday about the protests against SOPA and PIPA, in which major Internet sites (including Wikipedia, Google, and, among others) and countless personal sites have shut down or curtailed their operations to protest the two bills currently being considered by Congress. Each would grant new powers to the federal government to monitor and control information posted online, including the power to block domain names based on copyright infringement claims.

But before I could get very far on that post, I read of the Supreme Court’s 6-2 decision in Golan v. Holder that allows the federal government to take works that had moved into the public domain and place them back under copyright protection (Justice Kagan recused herself, presumably because the case was working its way through the courts while she was Solicitor General).  The logic of the majority, by the way, is to require the federal government to meet obligations it made to hew to international copyright treaties to which the United States is a signatory, but of course the decision’s impact goes far beyond foreign works.

If you haven’t yet read the Supreme Court’s decision in Golan v. Holder (available here in PDF), take a look. The majority opinion, authored by Justice Ginsburg, is, as Yoni Appelbaum (@Yappelbaum) noted on Twitter, a “narrowly legalistic opinion for the Court.” It used historical evidence, to be sure, going back to the original 1886 Berne international copyright convention. But it delved no further, and did not explore the deep background of copyright law in the United States. The Breyer dissent (concurred by Alito), by contrast, digs all the way back in Anglo-American jurisprudence to the earliest copyright statutes in Great Britain (in 1710). Breyer has a very good account of the development of copyright in the eighteenth century, both in Britain and America. Here’s a representative paragraph:

Yet, as the Founders recognized, monopoly is a two­ edged sword. On the one hand, it can encourage produc­tion of new works.  In the absence of copyright protection, anyone might freely copy the products of an author’s creative labor, appropriating the benefits without incur­ring the nonrepeatable costs of creation, thereby deterring authors from exerting themselves in the first place.  On the other hand, copyright tends to restrict the dissemina­tion (and use) of works once produced either because the absence of competition translates directly into higher consumer prices or because the need to secure copying permission sometimes imposes administrative costs that make it difficult for potential users of a copyrighted work to find its owner and strike a bargain.  See W. Landes & R. Posner, The Economic Structure of Intellectual Proper­ty Law 68–70, 213–214 (2003).  Consequently, the original British copyright statute, the Constitution’s Framers, and our case law all have recognized copyright’s resulting and necessary call for balance.

Copyright has always been meant to protect the rights of producers — though crucially in the eighteenth century, copyright usually resided with publishers rather than authors. The Statute of Anne, in fact, was part of a regime that protected the monopoly of the Stationers’ Company of London. As Sarah Arndt points out, the monopoly was limited to England; Ireland (and Dublin in particular) became the publishing piracy capital of the British Atlantic. The colonies also lacked firm copyright law, but almost no printers (which is to say, Benjamin Franklin and nobody else) had the capacity to publish books; they imported from Britain and Ireland (see Richard Sher’s Enlightenment and the Book and volume 1 of A History of the Book in America, The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World for full details).

As it happens, the eighteenth century history of copyright and censorship provides two good case studies for efforts to protect artistic productions and government limitations of publications.

First, there are unintended consequences even to well-meaning legislation in the realm of publications. For a moment, take the British view of the Stamp Act, what would have been the largest effective restriction on print publication ever in British colonial America. Coming out of the Seven Years’ War, Britain was saddled with unprecedented debt, a new and very young king, and an unstable domestic political environment. To pay down the debt, Parliamentary ministers explored all sorts of options; asking colonists to pay a little more in taxes seemed unproblematic to them (for obvious reasons). England’s printing trade had operated with a Stamp Act since 1712, and several of the colonies (notably New York and Massachusetts) had passed temporary stamp taxes to fund the war effort in the 1750s. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, printers (as I argue in my research) saw it as a massive threat to their businesses and many colonists saw it as a threat to free and open political communication. Printers turned their publications into forums for protest, publishing essays against the Act, following protests, and organizing to lobby for its repeal and nullification. When November 1, the planned effective date of the Act, rolled around, presses across the colonies went silent in protest. Some printers, like William Bradford, publisher of the Pennsylvania Journal, melodramatically eulogized their newspapers. Merchants organized boycotts of British goods. And in thirteen of Britain’s colonies, the law was nullified (it took effect in Canada and the West Indies). By spring, Parliament repealed the law (with an assertion of its power to boot). I’m not predicting that there will be a second American Revolution, of course, but if Congress passes a tax on china, glass, and painters’ colors in a few years, all bets are off.

The second lesson is that copyright law in the United States originated in an environment that envisioned a free market for foreign works. Congress passed a copyright law in 1790 to cover new works in the United States—and as Breyer and Alito note, it did not cover foreign works. Noah Webster pushed hard for the law because of the massive success of his speller. He had spent years  traveling through the states trying to sew up copyright in each to protect his publication from piracy. For foreign works, the standard remained that whoever got there first stood to make a profit. For the most popular author of the early republic, Walter Scott, Mathew Carey made a deal with Scott’s London publisher to get access to the text first. Was there a better solution to solving the question of works copyrighted abroad? Almost certainly.

Putting modern debates into context is important. Laws restricting the circulation of information and publications have not been warmly received. Copyright has been an instrument to limit that circulation. And lastly, it was never intended to be permanent or retroactive. (Though, like many others, I doubt I will live to see the day when Mickey Mouse (first copyrighted in 1928) enters the public domain.) Understanding the background of copyright law and censorship helps us to understand both the law and the protests against it.


December 5, 2011

The Post Office as State-Business Hybrid

Filed under: Business History,Congress,Government,Joe Adelman's Posts,Media — Joseph M. Adelman @ 1:09 pm

News about the post office is circulating rapidly (which is ironic, given that the news is about cuts that will slow service). Over the weekend, the New York Times ran an analysis of the finances of the U.S. Postal Service, concluding that it could not survive without junk mail. And then this morning, the USPS itself announced anticipated service cuts that will close more than half of the 500 processing centers around the country, slowing mail delivery and eliminating (for practical purposes) next-day delivery of first-class mail.

As I’ve argued in other spaces, and as J.L. Bell commented on my post last Friday, Congress has asked the Postal Service to do the impossible: act as a monopoly universal provider and make a profit. It’s taken a while, but postal officials are finally starting to put things in those terms:

“We are in a deep financial crisis today because we have a business model that is tied to the past,” Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe said during a speech last month. “We are expected to operate like a business, but we do not have the flexibility to do so. Our business model is fundamentally inflexible. It prevents the Postal Service from solving problems and being effective in the way a business would.”

This is an unsustainable model for the long term. I would also stipulate that a major problem for the postal service is the massive obligations it is under for its pension system, though the problem runs far deeper (and therefore I won’t discuss it). Most importantly, I think the Postmaster General is underselling the issue. The key question is whether, as I noted on Friday, the government has a vested interest (i.e., a reason to fund) in providing a means to communicate by paper and packages throughout the country. The problem is and has been that Congress hasn’t asked that question. People want to privatize it or “rescue” it, but with little examination of the underlying question of whether society’s interest in the circulation of information in this manner is worth an expenditure.

The question is deeply vexed and has a long history. The 1710 Post Office Act of Parliament established the Post Office in North America (with headquarters in New York) for the purpose of facilitating communication but also with the explicit assumption that it would produce revenue that could accrue to the Treasury. (The revenue was initially to go for the support of the royal family.) It didn’t make money until the 1760s, when Benjamin Franklin as Deputy Postmaster General for North America instituted a series of reforms that streamlined and improved service. As I noted previously, the post office was important enough that it was one of the first actions of the Second Continental Congress, and it is also one of the few government agencies that Congress is explicitly authorized to regulate in the enumerated powers clause of the Constitution. Questions of revenue generation continued into the nineteenth century, when the Post Office made an enormous profit. And of course the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, which converted the Post Office Department into an independent government agency as the U.S. Postal Service, focused on ways to make the Post Office profitable again.

It’s also important to consider that the communication that flows through the postal system has changed dramatically. At its inception, the Post Office was a means to circulate political information (through newspapers and other publications), official mail, and commercial information, and rates were set accordingly. Alexis de Tocqueville, on his tour of the United States in 1831, noted with wonder how thorough information circulated in the nation:

I travelled along a portion of the frontier of the United States in a sort of cart, which was termed the mail. We passed, day and night, with great rapidity, along the roads, which were scarcely marked out through immense forests. When the gloom of the woods became impenetrable, the driver lighted branches of pine, and we journeyed along the light they cast. From time to time, we came to a hut in the midst of the forest; this was a post-office. The mail dropped an enormous bundle of letters at the door of this isolated dwelling, and we pursued our way at full gallop, leaving the inhabitants of the neighboring log-houses to send for their share of the treasure.

The post office was, as Richard John has demonstrated, the branch of the federal government most present in the lives of Americans, and served as an outlet for encouraging informed political debate (or at least that was the ideal). Not until the 1840s and 1850s did Congress lower the price of sending a letter to a level that encouraged mass use of the genre, which led to the development of new forms of mail, including the valentine and advertising circulars. Now, as the New York Times piece cites, junk mail–that is, unsolicited advertising–constitutes a major component of the Post Office’s revenue stream. We no longer get our newspapers, as Tocqueville once noted, through the post office. We no longer send personal letters.

At some point, therefore, the ideal of government-sponsored communications channels fell by the wayside. What I hope Congress and the media will pick up on is the question of whether society and government have an interest in guaranteeing this sort of service, and if so, how. Whether that leads to the demise of the Post Office is up to Congress.

UPDATE (12/6, 9:31am): Just found that Richard R. John did a study for the Postal Regulatory Commission in 2008 entitled, History of Universal Service and the Postal Monopoly. Provides a good background with quite a bit more detail than I’ve provided here.


January 27, 2011

Founding Socialists?

Filed under: C-P Politics Issue 2008,Constitutional history,Founders,Government — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 8:00 am

This post will not live up to its title.

This space has been set to “sporadic” whilst I work out some issues with my nonline writing, but here is something that came almost directly across our very own transom.  The invaluable John Fea alerted us to a minor controversy over Our Founders’ thoughts on government-run healthcare that raged last week – those guys thought of everything. It flared up first at, got mentioned at Media Matters and the Washington Post site, and was eventually linked back, shockingly, to the Common-Place Politics issue that Ed Gray and I put together in late 2008. Specifically, Greg Sargent of the WaPo cited Gautham Rao’s essay on the early republic’s marine hospitals, a publicly funded healthcare system for merchant sailors, paid for through a withholding tax on sailors’ wages.  Not a household word, the marine hospitals, but we can always hope.

Probably the most notable aspect of this issue as far the Founders are concerned is that big names said little or nothing about it (at least as far I know without digging all the way through Gautham’s bibliography). Though public anything on Our Founders’ watch is a moral impossibility as currently popular views would have it, the marine hospitals were not even controversial to the actually existing Founders. The merchant marine was a national resource that needed to be kept supplied with workers, so the Founder-managed government did something that needed to be done: make a low-paying, dangerous but necessary occupation a bit less frightening. As Greg Sargent and the Forbes blogger, Rick Ungar, point out, the marine hospital system was created under John Adams by the same Federalist Congress who brought you the Alien and Sedition Acts, but it also enjoyed the support of Adams’s successor, Thomas Jefferson.  More than supported, in fact: Rao shows that the marine hospitals moved west and south with the frontier, eagerly requested even by good Jeffersonians and future Rand Paul constituents of Paducah, Kentucky.

Admittedly, I myself do not think it should matter that much what the statesmen of two+ centuries ago would think about issues they never had to confront.  The Founders lived in a world where massive intentional bleeding was an advanced medical treatment and basic, ubiquitous modern economic institutions such as corporations, banks and insurance were still rare and controversial in their very existence. If Michele Bachmann could go back and ask Jefferson or Adams what they think about “Obamacare,” assuming they did not flee into the woods at the sight of her, their most likely response would be, “Why are you asking us?”

Still, it was nice to see that the C-P Politics issue was of use to somebody. That was not so clear at the time.


November 19, 2010

Bridge to the 19th Century

Filed under: Business History,Early Republic,Economy,Government,Political Parties — Morning Chronicler @ 6:30 am

On the way to the SHEAR conference in Rochester this summer (if you missed it, they apparently have local ordinances prohibiting hotels from having lobbies!), I had the chance to see the Erie Canal up close. I’d seen it from a plane before, but at ground level you really appreciate the magnitude of the project.

But even more impressive than the physical structure, I think, is the fact that it was built at all. I can’t imagine that happening today. Building new bridges and public transportation systems seems like a thing of the past, made impossible by legions of nitpickers, privatization evangelists, politicians afraid of being blamed for added expenses, and people who have somehow decided that our governments are supposed to function like our households.

The project cost the state of New York $7 million in 1817, which was about 1% of the nation’s GNP at the time. In a smaller and agricultural economy, this figure looms even larger. Plus, the 363-mile-long route crosses an upstate New York region that was – and still is – fairly empty, to reach Lake Erie and a thinly settled territory toward the west.

Just think about the scope! The percentage of the federal budget that today goes toward transportation and infrastructure projects is 3% – a fraction many in Congress want to cut. Yet even that federal figure is smaller than the relative expense of the state-funded canal. If we invested 1% of our GNP in a single project today, that would be a $140 billion piece of work.

That’s just less than the inflation-adjusted cost of the entire Apollo moon program.

No wonder they named so many things after DeWitt Clinton! But he of course didn’t act alone – the sums speak volumes about the under-appreciated state legislatures of the early republic, where we find frequent bi- and multi-partisan consensus in favor of infrastructure projects, and a high tolerance for debt-financed economic development.

Compare that with the country’s current inability – and unwillingness – to address $2 trillion in infrastructure needs that result in the occasional bridge collapse, blackout, and routine, epic traffic jams.

This legacy casts an even more unflattering light on politicians like N.J. Gov. Chris Christie, who recently killed a Hudson River rail tunnel that would have been the first built in the New York City area in more than a century. The N.Y.-N.J. Port Authority and the federal government each were kicking in $3 billion for the $8.7 billion project, and N.J. was responsible for the remaining $2.7 billion. Basing his decision in estimates of potential – yet not probable – cost overruns, Christie trashed the project’s sponsors and the unions who were already at work on the site, and announced his intention to keep the federal money. Instead, he has to give it back, with interest, and may have put his state on the hook for $600 million already spent the groundbreaking.

What’s baffling about these decisions is that the country’s population isn’t getting smaller. At peak hours, the existing Hudson River tunnel has a train passing through every few seconds. It is already at capacity. Expanded rail access would not only serve the region’s growing population by reducing commuting times and expanding transit access; it would also raise property values – one study pegged the boost at an average of $19,000 per home for a total of more than $18 billion. If you captured that gain in real estate taxes, it would pay for the debt service on the tunnel’s bonds. This project would pay for itself in one of the densest populated corridors in the developed world, and the money could be borrowed during a period of record-low interest rates and paid back over 35 years.

When New Yorkers planned the Erie Canal, they hoped for federal support. When they didn’t receive any, they built it anyway, borrowing the funds at 6% per year. They didn’t spend their time searching for reasons to abandon the project, and unlike Christie and his ilk, they didn’t see a popular project as some kind of albatross.

We have an unemployment rate of almost 10% and more than $2 trillion in needed projects. We have students who have invested heavily in their own educations entering the weakest labor market since the Great Depression. And we have international competitors boldly investing in their futures – drawing provocative comparisons to the 19th century U.S.

What a contrast to 2010, when 75% of our national budget is promised to the military and retirees, and when we see firsthand how financial downturns can turn politically regressive. There was a time, until fairly recently, when politicians competed to outdo each other in support of public infrastructure projects. Most of the Interstate Highway Act, believe it or not, passed the Congress on a voice vote.

Compare that to the buzzworthy announcement that the northeastern United States will have high-speed rail by…. (wait for it) 2040.


August 17, 2010

The American individualist’s old clothes

Filed under: Government,Internet — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:37 am

I need to read it on the computer that’s actually large enough to see properly, but this site “Government is Good” seems to collect some very necessary information. The stable middle- class suburban world most Americans live in was made possible by government. Full stop. Where would any of it be without land laws, highways, schools, sewers, police and fire protection, etc.? ( I know I’m forgetting a bunch of others.) The actual rugged individualists of the American past understood that you wanted the government around. In places like Missouri and Kansas, they murdered each other over who got to have the county seat.

The problem is that Americans insist on thinking of government as something separate from themselves, even though, corrupt and annoying as it may be some,times, it is still a democratic government by for and of themselves


August 5, 2009

Democracy means never having to say you’re sorry . . . to the government

Filed under: Government,Historians,Political culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:23 pm

I have found that even most historians don’t want to give government credit for important developments, preferring a universe in which all people are the agents of their own destinies. And that’s fine, Americans are conditioned to think that way, and at least historians usually know enough about the social and institutional details of American life to understand the stiff challenges most people have faced in trying to take control of their lives. But imagine the chore involved in selling a government program to ordinary Americans who have the same conditioning, but know none of those details, or refuse to acknowledge them. One example would be the detail that we already have a huge government-run health care system called Medicare that senior citizens would fight to keep . . . the government out of? The president speaks ruefully about some of his mail:

[Via TPM]: The Washington Post reported a similar anecdote from a recent town hall in rural South Carolina with Rep. Robert Inglis (R-SC). Someone reportedly told Inglis, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.”

Bob Cesca at Huffington Post has a funny piece with those details and more, emphasizing the fact that a lot of the people disrupting these Democratic “town hall” meetings on health care are obvious Medicare recipients. I have talked to more than senior American myself who likewise touted their Medicare out of one side of their mouths and decried “socialized medicine” out of the other.

This is American political psychology at work, the same kind of self-hypnosis that a lot of military people seem to perform on themselves, depending on government for their every need while refusing to intellectually or emotionally process that fact, the better to maintain their ultra-conservative politics in the world outside the military. Perfectly happy to be dependent on Medicare, millions of older Americans have just conveniently “forgotten” the fact it is a government program that should, according to their conservative ideology, be enslaving them, destroying their initiative, euthanizing them, etc.

I think this is why the health insurance industry really should be worried about the “public option” health insurance program being enacted. If the public option exists, people and small businesses will start relying on it, and about two weeks later, they will forget all about its being an evil socialistic intrusion and the thing will be as hard to get rid of Medicare and Social Security, which is to say nearly impossible.  Even the next Republican administration will be trying to expand it. The smarter right-wing ideologues and industry lobbyists know this very well. I hope the president and the congressional Dems are ready, because the onslaught of disinformation and disruption is not going to stop. Certain people have too much money and ideological crediblity at stake.

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