America is falling apart—and selling the pieces

29 Oct 2010

Why did Chicago lease its parking meters to a mysterious consortium of companies—for seventy-five years? Why is Indiana leasing out a toll highway? Or Virginia leasing a port? And then there’s “a whole bevy of Californian public infrastructure projects, all either already leased or set to be leased for fifty or seventy-five years or more in exchange for one-off lump sum payments of a few billion bucks at best,” Matt Taibbi reports in his Rolling Stone article “America for Sale”.

The reason is “usually just to help patch a hole or two in a single budget year.”

Maybe this is old news to people living in the States. I did a search for “america for sale,” to get the link for Taibbi’s article, and got a big list of editorials, news articles, books, and online rants all about how the country is selling off its stuff to make ends meet.

But I’ve been out of the country for a while, and haven’t been keeping up with the day-to-day developments. My wife was reading the newspaper, and even before I brought up Taibbi’s article, she said, “Why are we moving back to the States? It’s falling apart.”

I said, “Because it’s going to be really interesting to see what happens.”

The country has entered a new stage, Taibbi argues:

When you’re trying to sell a highway that was once considered one of your nation’s great engineering marvels — 532 miles of hard-built road that required tons of dynamite, wood, and steel and the labor of thousands to bore seven mighty tunnels through the Allegheny Mountains — when you’re offering that up to petro-despots just so you can fight off a single-year budget shortfall, just so you can keep the lights on in the state house into the next fiscal year, you’ve entered a new stage in your societal development.

There’s a name for that, which hardly anyone in America wants to think about. If we asked the 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon, he’d probably call it “the decline and fall of the American empire.” If you asked anthropologist Joseph Tainter, who wrote The Collapse of Complex Societies, he’d probably say that America has entered the phase where simply maintaining its infrastructure is becoming taxing, and it’s on the verge of crumbling.

If we asked the ecologist Howard T. Odum, he’d say it’s time to look for a prosperous way down. And you know me—I’d say we need to figure out how to fail gracefully.

I’m looking forward to coming back to the U.S., even if it is being colonized by Middle East sovereign wealth funds, as Taibbi argues. Should be fascinating times.


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »