John Buell

More Concrete, Less Abstraction

The mainstream media repeatedly remind us that any more “stimulus” in the form of government spending is off the table, politically a nonstarter. Of course they seldom acknowledge that their long-running recitation of that theme helps shove it from the table. In an equally fundamental sense, however, the terms of the debate play as large a role in the political outcome as the tiresome repetition. The Fox/CNBC/CNN echo chamber is alive with the sound of wonkish abstractions sure to turn off many who might be inclined to challenge the business orthodoxy. I am not immune from use of such abstractions, but it may be time to engage in more down-to-earth conversation.

Liberal economists do an excellent job illustrating and explaining how the collapse of the housing bubbles and the loss of attendant consumer wealth have created a huge demand gap in our economy. Consumers are trying to pare their debts and business won’t invest absent growing demand for their products. Only government spending can fill that gap. Enter the concept of stimulus. But stimulus hardly has the resonance of such conservative favorites as the death tax, death panels, red tape, strangling initiative, mom-and-pop stores.

Stimulus needs to be retired in the interest of an appeal that has a better chance of translating to the needs and worries of our citizens. Last year’s weather, when a vastly disproportionate number of extreme events occurred, were of course a human tragedy. Nonetheless, these events provide not only a teachable moment to resume explication of global climate change and its implications but also an opportunity to illustrate the human importance of that big G (government spending) concept so beloved in all those economics 101 texts. Indeed, even those who are ardent climate change deniers may see in these events the tragic possibilities that always lurk within the human condition. Only our police, fire, EMT and fellow citizens can help us through these or at least ease our sorrows.

A revelatory moment for me was reading newspaper accounts of the two Chicago firemen who perished while searching for fellow firemen who themselves were trying to save any of the city’s homeless population inside one of the city’s deserted buildings. The story is a microcosm of the pathologies of urban America: homelessness, decayed and deserted inner cities, tensions between the poor and the working class. It also reminds us of the dangers implicit in such settings. Lighting fires in deserted buildings in an effort to remain warm is a danger to everyone. How commendable that firefighters often risk their lives in efforts to prevent the spread of such contagion. Private businesses have neither the resources nor incentive to provide such services for the whole community. Many businesses and homes can go if no one provides such services. (The Center for Disease Control and National Institute for Health medical play analogous roles and may be targets of Republican budget slashing.)

On a more prosaic but equally significant level, efforts by New York City servants to clear the city streets are more than a matter of convenience.  Not only was the city brought to a halt for several days, emergency service vehicles faced serious delays. The role of labor/management conflict, inept administration and staffing cuts for sanitation workers will surely be part of a long debate, but the story clearly suggests to me how vital competent and respected sanitation workers are to a thriving city.

By all accounts, cities and states everywhere are cutting fire, police, community health, and sanitation services. It is hard to imagine that after many years already of “fiscal austerity” these services are bloated. Perhaps we need to take a closer look at out own communities and play a thought experiment. Are we equal to even normal danger scenarios let alone the cataclysmic damage that seems more common?

And these workers labor not merely in a social setting but a physical and technological one as well. We are not going to have a nation that is employed, productive, and just without respect for and funding of those who provide the emergency services on which more of daily life is likely to depend. Part of respecting and enabling such workers is assuring all citizens state-of-the-art transportation and communication services. With our electrical grid antiquated and our roads and bridges receiving a D minus from professional civil engineering groups, we have a long way to go. Part of the answer lies in ditching some of our academic abstractions, highlighting the human costs of civic decay, and celebrating the contributions of many community service workers.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2011

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