Obama’s budget stands in opposition to thirty years of failed subsidies to the private sector
Though President Obama’s first budget proposal, whose rough outlines were released yesterday, doesn’t say much about his transportation proposals, it does provide insight into our country’s new direction overall.
America’s fundamental problem is that it has allowed income inequality to increase rapidly over the past four decades, especially as compared to that in other developed nations. Because of our generous corporate tax breaks, lack of national health care, and inferior education system, we have simply made the problem worse, exasperating the plight of the poor and encouraging the rich to continue enriching themselves – but not the economy as a whole.
Since World War II, the world’s developed economies have provided increasing standards of living to their inhabitants, but at a slowly mounting cost. Pressure by private interests in recent decades has sacrificed many of those gains by destroying social protections at the alter of “free” trade; the result was a reduction in the power of democracies to govern as corporate multinationals, working under the auspices of organizations such as the WTO, have created markets that prioritize the profit-making of a few above the promotion of a quality of life for all. In the name of economic freedom, the liberty of the majority has been reduced.
The Bush administration marked the high point of this neoliberal philosophy by encouraging government to subcontract every aspect of its operations to the private sphere, at higher costs and at reduced dividends. The disaster represented by Hurricane Katrina, which Bobby Jindal claimed showed that “the strength of America is not found in our government,” rather was a demonstration that a government that doesn’t believe in government doesn’t work. The death of thousands of people in New Orleans was the result of a government not willing to take account for its responsibilities, which are fundamentally to provide for the public welfare. That mission has been diluted and sometimes lost since the rise of modern conservatism.
States and cities, quickly loosing the support of the federal government, often have had no choice but to sell off public assets – or let them rot. In transportation, the result was clear: Washington wanted much of the interstate highway system auctioned off to the highest bidder; it wanted a public Amtrak to fail; it was willing to let transit systems fall into disrepair; and it saw no reason to encourage sustainable transportation if it wasn’t profitable.
Mr. Obama’s budget promises a new day in the United States, a return to the hope that as a collective, we can ensure the health and well-being of all individuals. It turns its back on the premise that the market forever decides what is right or what is wrong. It encourages us as a people to ask what we can do for one another, rather than what we can do for our own self-interests.
This year, Congress will debate and eventually approve the new transportation bill. Lawmakers can choose to continue to deny the fact that automobiles and their product – sprawl – are the principal causes of the environmental disaster that lies ahead of us. They can continue to ignore the rapid deterioration of our infrastructure, sell it to private industrialists, and allow it to continue falling apart.
Or, our congresspeople can do something new, pushing for sustainable, environmentally-friendly mobility that encourages the kind of dense living that has been proven time and time again to be better for the health of the world’s ecosystems. Congress can choose to advance a massive reconstruction of our railways and roads and bridges that will secure our standing in the twenty-first century. It can choose to work on behalf of everyone, rather than just the wealthy few.
I hope that this week marks a turning point in American society, a recognition that somewhere, we went off course. Mr. Obama’s budget proposal represents a strong starting point. Now the rest of us need to get to work.