Saturday, July 30, 2011

National greatness and its opposite

Took the kids to see the Bay Model in Sausalito, a huge scale-model of the hydrological systems around San Francisco Bay, built a long while back by the Army Corps of Engineers. They are refurbishing it so it was empty of water, which somewhat diminished the experience. It's also a bit fusty around the edges since it is no longer needed for its original purposes, having been replaced by computer models. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is an incredibly important and incredibly fragile piece of California's infrastructure (a good part of it is under sea level and protected by old, fragile levees, likely to collapse soon even without taking climate change into account). The Bay Model doesn't much go into the politics of water in California, although anyone who's seen Chinatown (or better, read Cadillac Desert) knows how much the two are linked.

But this post isn't about water, it's about a side-exhibit there on the Marin shipyards which used to be on the site where the model is located, which were thrown together in WWII and began churning out Liberty Ships at a rapid rate (one of the films shows that as one ship was being launched, they were already lowering part of the keel for the next one into the construction bay). People were drawn into the area from all parts of the country and all walks of life, with housewives being trained as welders overnight, black sharecroppers pouring in from the South. It was an incredible coordinated effort. It took a mere three months from deciding where to site the shipyard to starting lay steel in. Hard to imagine today.

I couldn't help contrasting the spirit that animated this effort with the current deadly stagnation in Washington, where even raising an arbitrary numerical limit seems to be impossible, let alone actually doing something. There is not even a hint of a shared national spirit, some grand project that could get people working together on the vast scale seen during the war. The calls to mobilize seem to fall on deaf ears.

Of course the war efforts were unencumbered by environmental constraints or much respect for individual rights. And while national greatness sounds a lot better than national stagnation, it seems as if it's usually a byproduct of war, the most destructive and wasteful thing in the world. Greatness may not be worth it.

4 comments:

Anton Sherwood said...

Do try to remember that there's more to a nation than its politic(ian)s. Does nothing count unless it's done in the name of the granfalloon?

TGGP said...

Your prospect link has an extra quote mark at the end.

I've had it with National Greatness. Break the country up into smaller pieces and likeminded people within those localities can pursue their plans without having to fight with others who want none of it. The laboratory of the (small, autonomous) states will show what works.

l'etoile du nord said...

Re the situation in Washington, let's remember that it is not Congress's job to pass legislation. It is (or ought to be) to pass only good legislation, and positively not to pass bad legislation. What has happened in Washington so far is that Congress has not passed several pieces of bad legislation. This is a good and not a bad thing.

It is specious to equate a failure to raise the debt ceiling with "default." Default is a failure to make a loan payment on time. The Federal government has lots of tax revenue coming in every month, more than enough to pay its bondholders. The Social Security "trust fund" (which is only the accumulated surplus of payroll taxes paid in over benefits paid out) is invested in U.S. bonds, notes, and bills. Some of these could be sold to raise funds, so Granny's Social Security check need not be held back either. The armed forces can be paid from current revenues. If the debt ceiling isn't raised, much government activity can still go on. Some of it will have to be pared back, and this is what Obama doesn't want to do. He should.

To give him the right tools, Congress ought to restore the presidential power of impoundment. The end of impoundment coincided with the ballooning of deficits and Federal debt. It's time to recognize that getting rid of impoundment was a mistake.

What happened in Minnesota earlier this summer played out in microscosm what will probably happen in Washington. The state legislature, controlled by Republicans, passed a budget that relied on all cuts and no tax rate increases. It then adjourned. Mark Dayton, the far-left DFL governor, wanted a budget that raised taxes on "the rich" (here defined as anyone making more than approximately$135k/yr) and that didn't cut spending as deeply. He vetoed the budget and refused to call the legislature back into special session until they agreed to his tax increases. The threat he hung over them was that, without a budget, state government would shut down at the end of June. He made, and the media echoed, all sorts of dire threats about what would happen if that took place - just as Obama, the Democrats, and the media are making about a failure to raise the debt ceiling.

The Republicans in the legislature wouldn't budge, and so the government shutdown took place, except for "essential services" (raising the question why the state was doing anything that wasn't essential in the first place). The shutdown went on for close to two weeks before Dayton realized that events were not going his way, and that most residents were barely effected by it, except for the 20,000 or so, mostly union-affiliated, state employees, who had been furloughed. He called the legislature back into session, and it then passed a budget not very far from the one it originally did, with no tax rate increases, and the lowest increase in spending provided by a new budget in decades. Dayton signed it. He put the best face he could on it, but it was really a defeat for him and the DFL party.

A failure to raise the debt ceiling by August 2 will probably be as anticlimactic as the Minnesota "shutdown" turned out to be. Life will go on for most Americans without noticeable change. And, sooner or later, the debt ceiling will be raised, but on terms closer to those preferred by Republicans than by Democrats.

The claim that rating agencies will downgrade U.S. credit is a laugh. These are the same agencies that gave mortgage-backed securities gilt-edged ratings, and we know how reliable those were. They should be stripped of the official endorsements given them by law and regulation (including Dodd-Frank) so that banks and investors have to do their own due diligence rather than relying on the agencies' ratings. These have proven to be dodgy in the past, and doubtless will continue to prove so in the future.

mtraven said...

What struck me at this exhibit (which was a very standard sort of WWII display, nothing exceptional) was that so many non-politicians had to exert herculean effort and/or uproot their lives to make this happen -- engineers, managers, and laborers. The shipyard was a private entity (part of Bechtel I believe).

Now, obviously much greatness gets accomplished by individuals and non-government entities. But certain things require investment and coordination on the scale of a government. Some of these are just plain bad (aggressive war), some of them are unpleasant but probably necessary (defensive war), some are extravagant wastes of resources (moon landings), some of them are necessary investments in infrastrucutre (transport, water systems), and some are vital to the progress of humanity (scientific research).

Oh well, don't get me started on why I disagree with libertarianism. There's plenty of that in the archives, like here.