Monday, December 28, 2015

Since 2001, we've spent at least $1.5 trillion on military operations in the Middle-East. For $168 billion, we could have had a new WPA and modernized our infrastructure.

(WPA workers building a sewer system in St. Paul, Minnesota, ca. 1935-1943. All across the nation, WPA workers installed 24,000 miles of new storm & sanitary sewer lines. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.)

According to the National Priorities Project, Americans have spent at least $1.5 trillion for military operations in the Middle-East. Currently, in Afghanistan alone, American taxpayers are spending about $4 million per hour. What do we have to show for all of these expenditures? Well, we've propped up corrupt regimes; we created a power vacuum that created ISIS; we've had hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military equipment & armament stolen by enemy forces; many of the soldiers & police we've trained aren't very motivated to fight; there is no end in sight--nearly 15 years later--for our complete exit; and so on. (Oh yeah, and oil didn't pay for the war, as the war hawks told us it would back in the early 2000's.)
Earlier this year, Doug Bandow of the right-leaning Cato Institute wrote: "American foreign policy is controlled by fools. What else can one conclude from the bipartisan demand that the U.S. intervene everywhere all the time, irrespective of consequences?... Not only has virtually every bombing, invasion, occupation, and other interference made problems worse. Almost every new intervention is an attempt to redress problems created by previous U.S. actions. And every new military step is likely, indeed, almost guaranteed, to create even bigger new problems. Which will spark proposals for new interventions likely, indeed, almost guaranteed, to generate new problems, messes, crises, and catastrophes. Which then will yield another round of suggestions for wars, drone strikes, occupations, aid transfers, invasions, diplomatic pressure, and other forms of meddling."
It's hard to dispute Bandow's observation. However, American policy doesn't have to be this way.

From 1935 to 1943, the New Deal's WPA spent about $10 billion on infrastructure. That's about $168 billion in today's dollars (the WPA spent an additional, but much smaller amount on non-infrastructure projects, e.g., theater productions, artwork, research studies, and the production of clothing for low-income Americans). With that now-$168 billion, the WPA built or improved 650,000 miles of roads, worked on 124,000 bridge projects, installed 16,000 miles of new water lines, created or renovated 8,000 parks, and much more. (Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-1943, 1946, pp. 98-136.)      

We could have replicated the WPA experience over the past 6 years or so (and perhaps it would have cost a bit more, for a variety of reasons), but we didn't. And while defense contractors and their wealthy owners, executives, and investors might be happy about foreign spending stomping out domestic spending--since war makes them rich--our infrastructure surely isn't happy. Since 2001, our infrastructure has received letter grades of D+, D, D, and D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Spending trillions on war (don't forget to factor in the money we'll be spending to treat tens of thousands of wounded and disabled veterans), while pretending that infrastructure doesn't need to be repaired and improved, has real consequences. This isn't just about that pesky pothole at the end of your street. For example, "The federal Department of Transportation estimates that obsolete road designs and poor road conditions are a factor in about 14,000 highway deaths each year" ("Human Cost Rises as Old Bridges, Dams and Roads Go Unrepaired," New York Times, November 5, 2015). And remember all those dams in South Carolina that recently failed? Well, what do you think is going to happen when sea temperatures continue to rise, creating more and more extreme rain events? 

We could have used a new WPA several years ago, when unemployment was sky-high. We could still use a WPA today, to modernize our infrastructure. We could also use a WPA in the future, for the next business cycle slump. But... we didn't get a WPA, and we're not currently thinking about a WPA, and we're most likely never going to see a WPA in the future either.

But one day, you can be certain, there will be hell to pay - in terms of failed dams, floods, washed out roads, and lives. These things are already happening now of course - but it's going to be much worse in the future, when our infrastructure is older and our weather worse.

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