Monday, January 27, 2014

California drought, transporting water, and Krugman's "Learned Helplessness"

(WPA workers installing a water line in Maryland, in December of 1935. Between 1935 and 1943, WPA workers installed over 16,000 miles of new water lines. That's enough water line to go from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco, and back again, three times. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

California is experiencing severe drought conditions, and it could get worse. California is also plagued by wildfires and, because of the drought conditions, the wildfires could become more frequent and severe in years to come.

There is an that idea pops up from time to time to address persistent drought: Move water from areas that routinely experience floods to areas that routinely experience drought. To this idea I would add the following: Hire and train unemployed Americans to perform the task--with the assistance of private contractors and the Army Corps of Engineers--and you will have a win, win, and win situation: The unemployed will have useful work (and a restoration of hope), private firms will have more business, and droughts & wildfires will become less severe.

 (The Central Arizona Project, the largest aqueduct system in the United States, carries water from the Colorado River to central and southern parts of Arizona. The main system is 336 miles long and was built from 1973 to 1993 (see history here). This aqueduct cost $4 billion to construct and highlights what we can do when we put $4 billion towards the common good, instead of creating policies (e.g., colossal tax breaks for the wealthy) that give $4 billion to a single individual who, in turn, uses that fortune to manipulate federal, state, and local governments through massive campaign contributions. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)

There's one major problem with trying to create a public works project to move water from flood-prone areas to drought-stricken areas (and hiring the unemployed to perform much of the work). It's not an engineering problem, but a problem that Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman pointed out two and a half years ago: "Learned Helplessness." Krugman wrote: "As I see it, policy makers are sinking into a condition of learned helplessness on the jobs issue: the more they fail to do anything about the problem, the more they convince themselves that there’s nothing they could do."

I would expand the "Learned Helplessness" concept to cover over our entire society. We are being conditioned to believe that large undertakings for the common good are "not serious" or "not practical." So, we fail to act and the results are destructive droughts, record-setting wildfires, rising rates of suicide (due, in part, to unemployment), and wealth inequality so enormous that the 400 richest Americans now have as much wealth as the entire African American population of the United States. We are being conditioned to believe that projects undertaken for the common good are "radical" or "socialist," but a system that enriches the already-rich, while everyone else lives in perpetual fear of unemployment and poverty, is necessary for "economic growth" (those two wonderful words that have become code for "more money for the 1% and less for everyone else"). In sum, we're being conditioned to be stupid.  

 (The CCC employed jobless young men to, among other things, fight wildfires. Even though it worked then, a CCC would not be possible today. A new CCC would require democracy, but America has become a plutocracy. The 1% controls Congress, and they have no need for a public jobs program. They're getting wealthier and wealthier and that's all that matters (see interesting research on the policy preferences of the wealthy here, particularly table 5 on p. 57). Hence, unemployment, stagnant wages for those who do work, and record-setting wildfires will continue to be the norm. Photo courtesy of the Oregon State University Archives.)

(The Thomas Viaduct carries trains over the Patapsco River and the Patapsco Valley, in central Maryland, and is a vivid example of what can result when we reject the Learned Helplessness that plutocrats are indoctrinating us with. According to the book Historic Bridges of Maryland (2002) by Dixie Legler, Carol Highsmith, and the Maryland State Highway Administration, "People scoffed when Benjamin Henry Latrobe began building his 612-foot-long stone bridge over the Patapsco River. 'Latrobe's Folly,' as some doubters called it, opened in 1835 and has been in continuous service between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. ever since...the bridge has carried every type of locomotive from the original six-ton engines of the 1800s to the three-hundred-ton engines of today without requiring any major repairs or modifications, confirming the stunning misjudgment of early skeptics." Image courtesy of Wikipedia, CCA-SA 3.0 Unported License.)

The truth is, we can do many things that we are told we can't. Many of the people who tell us that large infrastructure projects are "zany" or "wacky" are the same people who make millions (or billions) by demonizing the government & demonizing the less fortunate, while giving millions to politicians to make sure our government is no longer ours. Or, they are people who receive funding from these millionaires and billionaires, to produce "serious" research about why we can't afford to help ourselves. And, as repulsive as that is, we also have to look in the mirror and ask, collectively, "Why are we buying, believing, and submitting to this garbage?"

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