Every morning I stand on a crumbling subway platform, play spot the rat and watch as commuters tap away on their iPads. This always reminds me of the passage in Power Politics where Indian writer Arundhati Roy describes walking in Mumbai past candle-lit “road gangs of emaciated laborers digging a trench to lay fiber-optic cables… .”
Hers is a stirring image of the contradictions of a developing nation; mine is of an empire going kaput. How much longer can our 21st century country run on 19th century infrastructure?
When I asked about this recently an engineer colleague of mine, Josh Karpoff, directed me to the Web site of the American Society of Civil Engineers. It turns out that we are all about one glass of tap water away from toxic cooties. It appears that if our nation’s economic priorities don’t shift soon, relying on the current water system—or bridges and tunnels—will be akin to bungee jumping into a field of broken glass.
The good news is that the railways aren’t as bad as my rat-infested, rebar-exposed subway platform might indicate. They received a grade of C on the pen-protector gang’s Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. Now granted, a C is pretty bad, but let’s just pretend it’s a grade that’s not in your major, like the Stars for Stupids or Rocks for Jocks classes I had to take when I was a philosophy major.
But our drinking water system received a D-. I don’t care how little attention we liberal arts students paid in physics, getting a D- in anything means that the professor took pity on you and didn’t fail your sorry ass because you were about to graduate and at least you showed up for a couple of classes.
When it’s the grade on the system that delivers water, that is, the libation we need to survive since 96 percent of our bodies are made of the stuff, we’ve reached a critical juncture.
One look at the horror playing out in Haiti right now, where a cholera epidemic is spreading and threatens to take the lives of hundreds of thousands who have no access to safe and clean drinking water, illuminates the threat from this one aspect of infrastructural demise.
According to the Report Card, every year the U.S. water system faces an $11 billion shortfall in what’s needed to simply maintain it in decent working order. This amount doesn’t even include upgrading the water system to accommodate any population growth. In New York City, many of the giant water mains that run below streets were installed some time in the 1880s and are estimated to last about 120 years, which even my math-challenged brain has calculated to mean we’re drinking on borrowed time here in the empire’s center of commerce and finance.
The New York Times‘ terrifying 2009 series, “Toxic Waters,” exposed “More than 20 percent of the nation’s water treatment systems have violated key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act over the last five years.” In other words, we’re already well into the danger zone because our government will not spend on water systems in one year what it currently spends in less than one month on the war and occupation of Iraq.
Meanwhile, the millionaire bean counters in Washington, D.C. (aka, Congressmen), are sitting down to slash away at Social Security. And New York City’s billionaire mayor just hired a media mogul—who apparently has never stepped foot inside a public school (no kidding!)—to be the new schools chancellor in the nation’s largest school system with more than a million students, 135,000 teachers and an annual budget of $23 billion.
The city is gearing up for total war with the teachers’ union so that educators can be pounded into an army of low-wage test-prepers for bored and alienated youth. (Frankly, I don’t know why they don’t just fire all the students for poor performance since they are the least cost-effective line item in the education budget.)
What this all comes down to is that nowhere on the agenda of the lunatics running this asylum are any of the priorities we need to survive, no less thrive, in a modern society. The nation’s infrastructure is in collapse, ditto the schools and if those highly paid austerity boosters of both political parties get their hands on our Social Security we’re all going to die in toothless poverty.
Once a significant enough number of us absorb these facts, the only sane response is to organize mass marches, protests, direct actions and strikes to grind the wheels of the system to a halt and reverse course.
The 50,000-plus British students who took to the streets the other day against draconian cuts, thousands of whom occupied the offices of the Republican-like Tories, have the right idea. Of course, it will take a sustained struggle and a set of alternative—in my opinion, socialist—politics to reorient our society.
Or we could take our chances and leave our future in the loving embrace of bean counters and media moguls, since that’s panning out so well.
My next talk will be on What’s Behind the Rise of the Right and What Can We Do to Stop it, NYC at the LGBT Center, Sat., Nov. 20, 7PM, click here for details.