Monday, June 15, 2015

The New Deal brought water and people together. Some super-wealthy Americans are now forcing them apart.

(WPA workers building a reservoir in Elkton, Maryland, 1935. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

What happens when resources dwindle, in an environment of extreme income & wealth inequality? California offers a great case study (see "California's worst drought in 1,200 years in pictures," BBC, April 2, 2015 and "The California Chasm: A Look At Income Inequality In The Golden State," Capital & Main, Huffington Post, February 12, 2015).

Recently, a rich Californian complained that he and other wealthy residents "should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting their gardens to be beautiful. We pay significant property taxes based on where we live. And, no, we’re not all equal when it comes to water.” Another wealthy Californian explained (perhaps oblivious to the homeless problem in California), "You could put 20 houses on my property, and they’d have families of at least four. In my house, there is only two of us, they’d be using a hell of a lot more water than we’re using.” ("Rich Californians balk at limits: 'We're not all equal when it comes to water,'" Washington Post, June 13, 2015)

A recent study by UCLA found that "on average, wealthier neighborhoods [in Los Angeles] consume three times more water than less-affluent ones," and one of the researchers noted that many of the wealthy are "lacking a sense that we are all in this together...The problem lies, in part, in the social isolation of the rich, the moral isolation of the rich" ("California's wealthy lagging in water conservation," Los Angeles Times, April 5, 2015).

(WPA poster, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

In times of drought and water restrictions, some wealthy Californians can afford to get water brought in by truck, and "affluent coastal cities such as Santa Barbara and Cambria" can afford to build their own desalination plants. Others just use as much water as they want, despite the restrictions, and pay the fines. After all, it's just money. Of course, lower income folks have much fewer options when times get tough.

With respect to water, the callousness of some (not all) wealthy Californians extends to the ocean - literally. California State Assemblywoman Toni Atkins recently pointed out that some "wealthy beach house owners" have been "unlawfully blocking public access to the coast" with razor wire, gates, boulders, chains, altered foot paths, and official-looking (but ultimately bogus) "no parking" and "no trespassing" signs ("The Beach Belongs to Everyone," Huffington Post, June 9, 2015). Why are they doing this? Well, it's pretty obvious: They want the beaches and the ocean all to themselves, and don't like the "commoners" being near them.

These types of problems are not restricted to California, of course. It seems to be human nature to hoard resources. For example, I grew up in Maryland and saw waterfront areas along the Chesapeake Bay gobbled up by the wealthy. In 2013, it was reported that "Only 2 percent of the bay has public access points for kayaks, canoes, fishing, bathing and other recreation." A retired economic development executive said, "I call it the world’s biggest gated community, the Chesapeake Bay. There are probably 100 beaches in Anne Arundel County, but they are private beaches. For the general Jack and Jill, there’s no other beach to go to” ("U.S., groups working to open more public access to Chesapeake," Washington Post, July 28, 2013). Things have actually gotten better over the past 5-6 years, but it took an executive order from the White House, to "expand public access to waters and open spaces of the Chesapeake Bay," to get the ball rolling. Many rich Marylanders certainly weren't going to show enthusiasm for the public's ability to reach the Bay. Some of them probably saw the executive order and moaned, "More of those pesky little crabbing boats getting in the way of my half-million dollar cigarette boat?!? Good Lord! Obama's a communist!"

(A worker on a WPA project in Annapolis, Maryland, uses a trench-digging machine to prepare the ground for a new water line. Across the nation, WPA workers installed 16,000 miles of new water lines to bring clean water to more people. Photo taken in 1938, and provided courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

What all of the above highlights is that we are living in a society where, as the climate changes and resources become severely limited, we are likely to break up along class lines. Some of the wealthy will live in "moral isolation" and say things like "we're not all equal when it comes to water." Others will put up razor wire to prevent people from reaching a drinking water supply or enjoying a day at the beach. Perhaps some will wonder why their golf courses needs to suffer, just because some of "those people" need to drink water.

New Deal policymakers had a completely different philosophy than many (again, not all) super-rich Americans have today. They sought to bring more water to the people, and more people to the water. Work crews in programs like the CCC and the WPA created drinking water reservoirs, installed new water lines, and hooked up homes to water supplies (the WPA made or improved 882,000 consumer water connections). With respect to beaches, they performed general clean-up, constructed bathhouses, fortified sand dunes, and more. 

 (The Civilian Conservation Corps developed Myrtle Beach State Park in South Carolina, and "A number of buildings built by the CCC in the 1930's are still in use at this park." Photo and information courtesy of the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.)

With our growing water problems (chemical pollution, water main breaks, plutocratic governments shutting off water to low-income citizens, droughts in some areas, a greater frequency of extreme rain events in other areas, etc.) it will be good for us to heed the polices & principles of the New Deal, and work together, and not follow the people living in "moral isolation" who will increasingly claim that the amount and quality of water you receive should be based on your income & wealth.

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