Infinitely Depressing, If True

Adam Gopnik recently wrote an essay in the New Yorker that has continued to nag at me–not because he is wrong, but because I’m very much afraid that he’s right.

Here are the pertinent paragraphs:

What we have, uniquely in America, is a political class, and an entire political party, devoted to the idea that any money spent on public goods is money misplaced, not because the state goods might not be good but because they would distract us from the larger principle that no ultimate good can be found in the state. Ride a fast train to Washington today and you’ll start thinking about national health insurance tomorrow.

The ideology of individual autonomy is, for good or ill, so powerful that it demands cars where trains would save lives, just as it places assault weapons in private hands, despite the toll they take in human lives. Trains have to be resisted, even if it means more pollution and massive inefficiency and falling ever further behind in the amenities of life—what Olmsted called our “commonplace civilization.”

Part of this, of course, is the ancient—and yet, for most Americans, oddly beclouded—reality that the constitutional system is rigged for rural interests over urban ones. The Senate was designed to make this happen, even before we had big cities, and no matter how many people they contain or what efficient engines of prosperity they are. Mass transit goes begging while farm subsidies flourish.

But the bias against the common good goes deeper, into the very cortex of the imagination. This was exemplified by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s decision, a few short years ago, to cancel the planned train tunnel under the Hudson. No good reason could be found for this—most of the money would have been supplied by the federal government, it was obviously in the long-term interests of the people of New Jersey, and it was exactly the kind of wise thing that, a hundred years ago, allowed the region to blossom. Christie was making what was purely a gesture toward the national Republican Party, in the same spirit as supporting a right-to-life amendment. We won’t build a tunnel for trains we obviously need because, if we did, people would use it and then think better of the people who built it. That is the logic in a nutshell, and logic it seems to be, until you get to its end, when it becomes an absurdity. As Paul Krugman wrote, correctly, about the rail-tunnel follies, “in general, the politicians who make the loudest noise about taking care of future generations, taking the long view, etc., are the ones who are in fact most irresponsible about public investments.”

I remember thinking, when Christie made this decision, that he was simply crazy. In a sane world, refusing to provide demonstrably needed infrastructure–especially when it is virtually cost-free for one’s state to do so and when it will also generate desperately needed jobs–makes no sense at all.

But that assumes that, in a sane world, there is such a thing as the common good.


  1. Isn’t Indiana’s I 69 ongoing battle our train-under-the-Hudson New Jersey situation led by Christie? I have never agreed with a NEED for this innerstate which Daniels pushed through the system with his usual aplomb and Pence’s determination to sign the RFRA – with the “fix” that didn’t fix, of course.

  2. Isn’t the driver for most of what is described the further enrichment of the 0.1% elite class? The Christie example can be applied to pick-a-Republican that wants to be president. Social Security is a terrible idea except for the 50-60 million Americans who collect it and live on it. The sound bite is”we” can’t afford SS, “we” can’t afford infrastructure, “we” can’t afford to raise taxes because it would kill jobs creation. “We” can afford to continue in these pointless, endless wars, (then ignore the poor SOBs that go fight them). If you can say that with a straight face into a TV camera, you’re a potential Republican candidate for president. On some scale it has to be apparent that this approach is equivalent to sawing ourselves off at the knees, but nobody who wants to be president can say it.

  3. Don’t assume in America otherwise known as the “Land of the Blind” that there will be a common good. Just the opposite: complete division created by wedge issues.

    It’s not about genocide this time. It’s about DEMOCRACIDE.

    Actually, it is very easy to see if you want to see it. But we don’t want to see it because of cognitive dissonance. That not being insane. Just something close to it.

    Simply stated: Instead of Bunker Hunt’s FAILURE to corner the silver market, we now have his SUCCESS in cornering our democracy. It wasn’t his genius. It’s was his money.

  4. Indiana seems more interested in eliminating some public service infrastructure than creating it.

    A few communities are considering the need to eliminate public school transportation because local property taxes are capped, and state funding has not kept pace with increasing costs of busses, fuel, maintenance, and insurance. Since other public transportation from home to school is not available and poor parents don’t have cars, more and more communities will be forced to conduct a property tax referendum to fund school transportation OR to charge parents ‘bus fare’. Franklin Twp. here in Marion County made the news for charging parents $400+ for this service. With more children comes higher fees. More school communities are being forced to consider fees or referenda to preserve a way for children to get to school. Should we also charge parents a toll for using the roads and streets to deliver their child to school?

    Parents must also pay for textbooks in Indiana – one of the few states that charges for them. (Parents moving here from other states are appalled and outraged on having to pay a few hundred dollars per student for textbooks.)

    The state requires compulsory attendance of school, but we can imagine how lack of transportation would affect student attendance and achievement (negatively). Provision of public education is required by our state constitution, but apparently not the infrastructural components to facilitate it.

    Sheila, you’ve forced us to ask ourselves the right questions: does and should Indiana base public decisions on how we can improve public infrastructure to serve public interests or on how little we can do?

  5. Since 1980 the Republicans have railed against OUR government. They keep yelling that OUR Government is the enemy. This is absurd but it continues. They are against education because only an ignorant working person would vote for these people. Who votes against themselves? Good Grief.

  6. We know that everything in our brain got there by way of our five senses. Some of that are the threats and opportunities we sense in our specific series of places times and scale. Experiences. Common sense. Some is what we observe of how other people behave we believe to be “like” us. Culture and entertainment. Some are the experiences of others shared through media like books and teachers. Education.

    Our troubles stem from culture and entertainment overtaking common sense and education. Deep immersion into fantasy trumping what we and others have learned the old fashioned way. Our times and places defined by others through media rather than by us really being there.

    Sadly that means that others, through media, which costs money, “program” us as compared to what used to be our experiences in the real world good bad and indifferent.

    We are weak and they are strong.

    We all suffer from this but differently. In the beginning we sort out our choices for culture and entertainment, but monied media knows now our preferences as they develop and feeds us the deserts that we crave at the expense of the vegetables that we benefit from.

    Ration is blind. It is our ability to plan and execute considering abstract alternatives no matter what visions drive them. Ideas are considered in the context of our experiences, culture and education. When culture overwhelms experience and education, when what feels right overwhelms what experience and education tells us is right, when fantasy overtakes reality, especially the fantasies aimed at buying our actions, trouble abounds.

    We are in trouble now.

  7. Pete,

    It’s called “Big time political trouble.”

    We have to call it the way it is. That’s the only possible solution to overcoming the cognitive dissonance. It’s hard to run away when truth is staring you in the face.

    But that might not work either. Look at global warming. How much clearer does that have to be?

  8. Nancy’s makes an interesting analysis. While it is obvious that the current tax policies are starving public education, the governor and state house continue to trumpet their legislative accomplishments, without even so much as a wink.

  9. Marv Kramer: Re: climate change; here’s Indiana’s official response:

    “Indiana environmental officials and Republican Gov. Mike Pence are pushing back against new rules proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency that would reduce the amount of ozone levels allowed in the atmosphere.

    Indiana Department of Environmental Management officials say the state’s current air quality improvements are adequate. They’re also downplaying what medical researchers say is an unacceptable public health risk, saying that consensus science behind the proposed changes can’t be trusted, the Indianapolis Star ( ) reported.

    More than 1,000 studies have proved that breathing ozone reduces the ability of even the healthiest lungs to draw in air, according to public health researchers. And those suffering from asthma, bronchitis, emphysema and pneumonia are particularly at risk.

    But the state’s top air-quality regulators claim lowering ozone levels won’t help people with asthma and other conditions made worse by ozone, and they argue that the proposal will kill jobs and diminish the quality of life in Indiana.”

    They refuse to be confused by a few facts. You have to wonder…..

  10. One of the things that sows climate change confusion IMO is the word “pollution”. It typically implies a rise in concentration on land and in seas and air of something toxic to life. Of course in industrial practice what’s common is “dilution” which means that if you emit it from a tall enough stack by the time it reaches people on the ground it is dilute enough to be tolerable.

    So pollution implies toxicity. Carbon dioxide on the other hand is very non-toxic. In fact we exhale it with every breath. Plants that feed us can’t live without it. We can breath lots if it without problems as long as sufficient oxygen is mixed with it.

    The problem is that carbon dioxide is one of many greenhouse gases and is an unavoidable major waste stream from the combustion of fossil fuels which is disposed of in the atmosphere. Would burning all of the fossil fuels left in the ground raise a toxicity problem? No.

    What’s the problem then? As a greenhouse gas it traps energy outgoing due to earth’s temperature and reflects it back here in proportion to its atmospheric concentration. It always has and that’s why earth is at a temperature that is conducive to solid, liquid and gaseous water, a necessary condition for the formation of life here. We’re creating too much of a good thing. The extra energy our actions are trapping here is rearranging precipitation and seas levels to new patterns that are different than what we built our fixed civilization to accommodate.

    We have to relocate civilization. Coastal cities and agriculture and fresh water supplies to where they are going from where they were when we built civilization’s infrastructure. The more of our fossil fuel bequeathment we dig up, the more we will burn, and the more civilization we’ll have to relocate. Bigger bucks.

    On the other hand the less we dig up and burn by changes in our life style and energy infrastructure the cheaper will be the transition to what is inevitable in all scenarios, sustainability.

    Pure economics. Necessary economics. Unavoidable economics.

    Our grandchildren can’t live the lives that we have but can live very satisfying lives depending on what they and we do starting right now.

  11. St. Augustine is 25 miles to the South of Jacksonville.

    Located there is Castillo de San Marcos the oldest masonry fort in the continental US. Now at high tide the Matanzas River is overflowing the bulk head protecting the fort. It’s hard to tell how long it will continue to be a hands on educational and tourist mecca.

    We’re not going to be able to relocate this gem. It’ll be a great loss, especially, to young children who would have been able to see and touch this tangible evidence of an important part of our country’s history.

  12. Ann Rand Thinking is as the root of Republican governance, they want even consider raiseing gas taxes to fix the roads. Unwilling to raise taxes, unwilling to reshape tax policies that must include increases in the 1% of Corporations have parolized republicans from governing America. Their Tea/Publican fear of each other and the political terrior that will raid down on them from outside money has held them hostage from governing our nation. I see no currage left in the Tea Party / Republican brand.

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