The 'P' Decade

In the 1980s, after the oil boom of the '70s petered out, you'd see bumper stickers in the Oil Patch that prayed, "Dear Lord, please give us just one more oil boom and we promise we won't p*** it away this time."

Prosperity returned in the 1990s, although it wasn't so much connected with the oil and gas industry as with technological innovations. But have we p***ed it away once again?

During the '90s, Congress, under President Clinton, not only wiped out the Reagan-Bush era deficits but scored a record $237 billion surplus last year. Most state legislatures also piled up revenues that were much greater than anticipated, and their budgets grew accordingly.

But now that the BMWs and the Ferraris of the dot-com millionaires are being repossessed, corporate tax payments have tanked, and George II has the federal budget sliding toward the red, what do we have to show for the past decade's prosperity?

Peter Gosselin wrote in the Aug. 5 Los Angeles Times that for nearly a century, every time the American economy boomed, it left an enduring legacy of vast new public works and bold private initiatives that were intended to benefit all. "Interstate highways and universal phone service changed how we lived. The moonshot and environmental cleanup helped define who we are," he wrote. "But as the nation comes off the expansion of the 1990s, the longest in its history, it has relatively few similar accomplishments to show for the good times."

More Americans own personal computers and are connected to the Internet, but due to deregulation of electrical utilities, they're also more likely to run short of power needed to operate their computers, particularly in California. Many Americans, particularly in rural areas, can't get reliable Internet access because of outmoded phone lines. US hospitals offer the most technologically advanced medical care in the world -- but only if you have health insurance to pay for it. Even if you have insurance you may find yourself waiting hours for treatment in a crowded emergency room -- if you can find one that's open. And doctors face shortages of certain basic drugs as pharmaceutical companies find it more profitable to manufacture newer drugs on which they hold exclusive patents.

During the booming '90s, Gosselin noted, the nation devoted a historically small fraction of its new economic bounty to the roads and airports, waterworks and sewer plants that have traditionally made up society's foundation.

"While an increasingly deregulated private sector profited handsomely from the decade's growth, it was also given new responsibilities for such shared services as electrical power and health care. It tackled these tasks with the same spare, profit-driven techniques that it applied to carmaking and computers," he wrote.

From the Depression of the 1930s, well into the 1970s, federal, state and local governments combined to devote about 3% of the nation's total economic output to nonmilitary "public investment" in everything from traffic lights to interstate highways. It supplemented the investment with regulations that encouraged or required the private and nonprofit sectors to provide such things as an extensive system of hospitals and emergency rooms, universal telephone service and a constant supply of electrical power.

But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, led by business-funded think tanks promoting privatization and free enterprise, Ronald Reagan attacked the notion that government could do anything right -- with the possible exception of national defense. Deregulation spurred innovation in some industries but utility companies also cut back on what they spent to make sure there were adequate sources of power. Telephone companies concentrated on servicing the cities and let phone lines in rural areas deteriorate. Profit-driven health care companies cut back on money-losing emergency rooms and costly intensive-care beds. Airlines curtailed service to mid-level cities. Bus lines virtually stopped service to small towns.

Government spending on public works such as roads and schools fell by one-third, from more than 3% of the economy to 2% in the 1990s, Gosselin noted. That was the lowest level of any peacetime boom since the 1920s. It represents a loss of public investment of about $100 billion a year.

The White House recently proposed to spend $2.1 billion on water and sewer projects next year -- barely enough, Gosselin notes, to fix the problems in Atlanta, Ga., alone. The EPA estimates the nation needs to spend $20 billion to $30 billion a year on water and sewer projects in each of the next 20 years. Democrats have a tally of brick-and-mortar needs that runs nearly twice the official $1.35 trillion cost of the 10-year tax cut that Bush and the Republican Congress recently enacted -- and to bring public schools up to date would make the public works price tag almost three times the tax cut total.

William Kennard tried to slow down the deregulation of telecommunications when he was chairman of the Federal Communication Commission in the Clinton administration. He urged the government to make sure all classes of people benefit from technological improvements and Internet service is made available to rural and inner-city residents as well as businesses and the wealthy. (See "Telecom Meltdown," page 10.)

The FCC's new chairman, Michael Powell, son of the Secretary of State, prefers to rely, in good Republican fashion, on the free market. Powell ridiculed the notion of a "digital divide" between rich and poor, urban and rural. "I think there is a Mercedes divide," he was quoted saying earlier this year. "I'd like to have one; I can't afford one."

Closing the health care gap is still our most glaring need. Ever since the passage of Medicare to provide health care for our senior citizens and Medicaid to provide health care for our poorest citizens, under Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, Republicans have been trying to kill those "socialized health" programs as well as Social Security. As Texas governor, even when the state's revenues were overflowing, George W. Bush resisted adopting the federal Child Health Insurance Program, which provides coverage for children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid. Instead W offered tax cuts to oil companies. The Legislature forced him to accept the insurance program, but his agencies maintained strict regulations that kept an estimated 500,000 Texans from getting federally-subsidized Medicaid coverage by requiring working-poor parents to take time off from their jobs to fill out the forms and periodically meet with bureaucrats to maintain their eligibility.

Even after Bush left Austin to take his "compassionate conservatism" to the nation's capital, his protégé, Republican Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, vetoed bipartisan compromises in four health-related bills, including one that would have made Medicaid available to legal immigrants, expanded access to family planning and other women's health care, created new pilot projects to serve Texans with mental illness and HIV, and authorized local projects to serve the uninsured. The Legislative Budget Board estimated the bill would have saved the state $416.8 million in state dollars over five years.

Now the Bush administration is planning to slash Medicare payments for some innovative outpatient procedures, including the implanting of pacemakers, the Los Angeles Times reports. If they can't kill Medicare outright, the R's figure, they can starve it so that doctors won't accept Medicare patients and seniors will have to take out private supplemental insurance.

And the same people who brought you the deregulation of electric utilities in California and put your health care at the mercy of an insurance company bureaucrat at the other end of a telephone line want to privatize Social Security and dismantle Medicare.

Pick up your telephone and call your Congress member via the AFL-CIO sponsored hotline: 1-800-393-1082. If that number doesn't work, use the Capitol switchboard, (202) 224-3121. Tell Congress to keep their hands off Social Security and Medicare and push instead for universal health coverage so that we won't have wasted the entire boom of the '90s. (While you have them on the line, tell them to vote against giving Bush "fast track" negotiating authority on trade deals. See "Dispatches" on page 20 for more on that.) -- JMC

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