Monday, March 16, 2009

Of Hyperbole and Hypocrisy and the Great Socialist Interstate System

Welcome to pre-socialist America, back in the day when the federal government pretty much kept to itself. Or, in another way of putting it, neglected the country it had been put in place to govern. Evidence of this neglect is, to the left, Iowa, but this photo is illustrative of the entire country just before the First World War. Dirt tracks. Some 2.5 million miles of roads, most of them looking exactly like this when it rained (a mere 150 miles of roads were actually paved).

Many roads went nowhere. Nobody was responsible for building them, really, and nobody was responsible for repairing them. There was no rhyme or reason to them; they just developed over time as need demanded. Some were built by states for various reasons. Military roads, mostly. All in all, it is safe to say that travel across the United States had not progressed much since the days of the covered wagon.

Alexander Winton, who made cars for a living, became famous for a failed attempt in 1901. He managed to escape California but his wheels spun to a stop in the deserts of Nevada. National Geographic reports on a later attempt:
Two years later, Dutch reporter Marius Krarup successfully crossed the same stretch of sand. He rode in a 1903 Packard driven by Tom Fetch, one of three teams that left San Francisco for New York City to claim records in cross-country driving.

The pair failed in their bid to be first, but they did chart the most treacherous route.

Upon reaching Colorado Springs, Colorado, Krarup spoke of the conditions that preceded: "Nevada is awful, but Utah is the worst I ever saw. We carry a pick and shovel along, and we found it necessary in more than one instance to use them when we had to build roads ourselves, cutting along the sides of hills."

Colorado provided a brief respite. After Denver, Krarup and Fetch wouldn't see another surfaced road until Illinois.

The first driver to make it from coast to coast was Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson, who drove out of San Francisco in a 20-horsepower Winton touring car in the Spring of 1903. The America Jackson encountered was frozen in time. As recounted by Ken Burns
Traveling with his co-driver Sewall K. Crocker and a bulldog named Bud (who wore goggles, just like his master, to keep the dust from his eyes), Jackson had the adventure of his life. He encountered pioneers in wagon trains, cowboys who used their lariats to tow him out of sand drifts, ranch wives who traded homecooked meals for a brief ride on the "Go-Like-Hell Machine," and people who deliberately sent him miles out of his way just so their relatives could get their first glimpse of an automobile.

If America was to have roads worthy of the name, transportation arteries that encouraged travel, private citizens would have to build them. The first such highway was the Lincoln Highway, organized by Carl Fisher, the man who created the Indianpolis 500 and who developed Miami Beach. His dream came about in 1912, almost a decade after Jackson's fabled trip. The estimated cost was $10 million.

John Ford declined to donate to the project. He was one of those rich men from whom wealth is supposed to trickle down. In this case, as in so many others, it did not. He thought the public should pay for the roads, not private industry. In other words, the average working man, the middle class, should bear the brunt. Not the class from whom Republicans believe today will provide prosperity and development if we but decline to tax or regulate them heavily.Funding for the almost 4,000-mile-long highway came from a variety of sources. He sought donations from auto manufacturers like Ford, and automobile accessory companies (he himself owned a company that made headlights) of 1 percent of their revenues. Members of the general public was able members of the highway organization for a five dollar donation. The Federal Government, presided over by a Republican president, William Howard Taft, was spending $1.7 million on a statue to Lincoln but was not building any highways to improve the nation's infrastructure.

That said, it is useful here to note that Taft would have found little support among today's Republicans. For one thing, he considered himself a progressive. Among his sins was a strong regulatory bent: strengthening the Interstate Commerce Commission, expanding the civil service, establishing a better postal system, and promoting world peace. A socialist if there ever was one, by today's standards. We would do well to steer clear of the assumption that today's Republicans are not those of yesteryear, whatever claims they make today.

But back to our highway and funding. Carl Fisher lamented that "the highways of America are built chiefly of politics". It is interesting that today, our infrastructure maintained in largely the same manner - by Congressional earmarks. And Henry Ford had his wish in a way: the Interstate system is largely maintained by tolls paid for by the public and by gasoline taxes, also paid for by the public. Even so, it was the federal government that finally build a highway system.

The Lincoln Highway was the pre-war's Route 66. It had a mystique about it that persisted long after the highway had become US Highway 30. The loss of its name was part of a process begun in March 1925, when the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) began to set up the by now familiar US highway system. Every highway got a number. Every named highway lost its name - including the Lincoln, when in November of that year, the secretary of agriculture approved AASHO's plan.

In 1919 an army convoy followed the Lincoln Highway. One of the members of the expedition was a young lieutenant, Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1956 Eisenhower, by then a Republican President, would remember that trip and the German autobahns built by Hitler's Third Reich. As a result, the federal government, under the auspices of a Republican administration, undertook one of the biggest socialist building projects in America's history. The Interstate System is not only the largest highway system in the world but the largest public works project in history. And let us reiterate here: It was built by a Republican administration.Given the extent of Eisenhower's crime against everything the Republican Party stands for, should we give it back? Should Republicans refuse to drive on it, or perhaps be banned altogether? Or should they simply drop the hypocrisy and shut up?

Let's take a look at the expense. Begun in 1956, finished in 1991, the actual Cost to build the Interstate Highway System was $114 Billion over 35 years ago, and $500 billion in 2008 dollars.

What was the cost of FDR's New Deal, in comparison? According to The Nation, "During the New Deal, the Roosevelt administration spent about $250 billion (in today's dollars) on public-works projects, building about 8,000 parks, 40,000 public buildings, 72,000 schools and 80,000 bridges. The entire cost of all the New Deal programs (in today's dollars) was about $500 billion."

It is safe to say the Interstate System transformed America. But it cost $500 billion. The same price as the New Deal. Identical in value. Both transformed America. Is it hypocrisy to condemn the one and laud the other? I am unaware of any Republican criticism of the Interstate System. Republicans use it as much as Democrats. But Republicans detest the New Deal with a religious fervor. Yet both projects came from government spending. An identical amount of government spending. Why is one evil, and the other not?

If, as Republicans say, government spending is itself the sin, then they must shut their mouths or be hypocrites. There seems to be no other option. That, or they can stay off our Interstates and out of our libraries and away from every thing else government spending has provided for our benefit.

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