Taking Care of America: Whose Job Is It?

While we should be investing in expanding our communications infrastructure, many legislators are at work to cut the budget of the FCC

We live in an exceptional country, we like to tell ourselves. If that’s really so, why are we letting it crumble around us? Let’s take a quick and random look around.

How about our roads? Gone driving recently? It’s like playing dodgeball, trying to avoid the foot-deep potholes, yardstick-wide expansion cracks, sinkholes, and various other suspension-smashing challenges that dot every mile. The sight of a bridge ahead invariably brings to mind last night’s news story about how so many of them are on the brink of collapse, long past their useful lives. According to recent reports, our deteriorating road infrastructure is adding hundreds of dollars to your car repair bills and mine. Worse, lives are in danger. Even the vaunted Interstate Highway System that Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and a Democratic Congress built with vision—and money—has become a national embarrassment. But don’t expect much in the way of vision or money from the present Congress when it comes to repairing our neglected transportation infrastructure.

Railroads? Every week brings accidents and fatalities on our poorly-maintained track-bed. I’ve been addicted to trains since boyhood, but nowadays I board poorly-funded Amtrak cars with total trepidation. The Positive Train Control safety system that was mandated years ago is still far from implementation, and that’s one reason for the horrid derailment just outside Philadelphia recently. The big railroads have been dragging their feet and government has not done enough to make this life-saving technology a reality. Now—difficult to believe—the U.S. Senate is considering a bill to delay this essential safety improvement for another three years.

I still ride the rails on the Northeast Corridor regularly, but that’s primarily because our airport infrastructure is even worse. Near mid-air or on-runway collisions are becoming almost daily events. Our general airport facilities are actually inferior to those in some third-world countries. International travelers coming to the United States are amazed at the airport decrepitude they encounter. I’m still trying to understand the logic of those who claim airline deregulation was such a gigantic leap for mankind. The big carriers are awash in money, but consumers are footing the bill and, worse, risking their lives every time they walk down the jet-way (at those airports that actually have jet-ways). Congress could help but, of course, it doesn’t.

How about our water resources? Take a look at Maude Barlow’s “The California Drought Is Just the Beginning of Our National Water Emergency” (The Nation, August 3-10 issue) for an overview of the dilapidated pipes, leaky water systems, and unrepaired infrastructure bedeviling neighborhoods across the nation. Consumers are facing spiraling water bills that many cannot pay. Imagine having your water—your water!—cut off. Barlow estimates that cash-starved municipalities will need to spend $1 trillion over the next 25 years to repair these systems. Trickle-down economics doesn’t keep clean and ample water flowing.

Education. We’re all happy to engage in never-ending debate about whether charter or public schools perform better, but few want to do anything about adequate pay for teachers—teachers who could educate in either venue (although this writer opts for the public mission) and in schools that have the plant and technologies they need to be world-class. At the college level, we deny even basic benefits to adjunct professors who are, when you come right down to it, chattel slaves in the groves of academe. Not investing in good teachers and schools is entirely equivalent to not investing in our kids and grandkids. What kind of strategy is that for maintaining America’s exceptionality?

Public health? A daughter visiting in Europe last month had to take her infant to an emergency room. She was amazed at the speed and efficiency of the treatment. I doubt that I need to write anything more about how that compares with the over-crowded emergency facilities common to so many of our cities. This isn’t the place, nor is mine the expertise, to discourse on the inadequacies of our public health financing, other than to note how far we have to go. And when we make it difficult and often impossible to import cheaper medicines from abroad, or to limit the patent protections we grant to giant U.S. pharmaceutical companies, or to channel more funds into basic research, we only compound an already-intolerable situation.

The “know the cost of everything and value of nothing” crowd is telling the agency that should be looking after our communications safety, cyber-security, and threats of Internet terrorism that it should reduce its largely self-funded activities.

And then of course, I come to communications. Regular readers of this column are familiar with my thoughts about the sad state of our communications ecosystem in both telecom and media. We lag in broadband compared to many other nations—in its deployment, adoption, speed, and price. We have allowed a few huge telecom and media companies to control the content and distribution of the broadband Internet and the exciting new technologies that should be making this a golden age of communications. The communications sector has grown to one-sixth of the U.S. economy, yet the majority party in Congress treats it as a side-show. While we should be investing in expanding our communications infrastructure, many legislators are at work to cut the budget of the Federal Communications Commission—the agency charged with encouraging the deployment of broadband and advanced communications across the land. Nobody can be a fully-functioning citizen in the twenty-first century without access to a high-speed, affordable broadband Internet. Or these legislators attempt every stratagem to cut consumer protections and otherwise hamstring the FCC with appropriations riders as punishment for its historic net neutrality rules.

It’s more than curious, because the FCC is funded not by tax dollars but by fees for licensing and spectrum use. It actually makes money for the government, so all this budget-cutting is kabuki theater for those whose real goal is gutting government, no matter what the program. The FCC is not allowed to use most of the money it raises. Can’t the nay-sayers in Congress recognize a profit center when they see one?

Think about that. The “know the cost of everything and value of nothing” crowd is telling the agency that should be looking after our communications safety, cyber-security, and threats of Internet terrorism that it should reduce its largely self-funded activities. The FCC workforce has actually declined by double digit percentages since I went there as a Commissioner in 2001—yet it has so much more that it should be doing for consumer protection and national security. I can predict this much: if and when another act of terrorism like 9/11 occurs and our communications infrastructure fails again, people will be asking Congress how it was, after all the intervening years, that those supposed to be keeping watch weren’t really watching. It won’t be a rhetorical question; I suspect an electoral house-cleaning would ensue.

The costs of addressing our various national shortfalls are, obviously, enormous. These are not one-shot, one hundred day, or even one thousand day endeavors. They can be achieved only with a sense of commitment and national mission matching the best America has ever done.

If we don’t take these problems on soon, they can only compound and drag us farther down. They become more costly in both human and monetary terms with each passing day. We must come to appreciate that not meeting these challenges now ensures they will be infinitely more difficult to address later on—and incalculably more costly. But isn’t investment how we build? Shouldn’t we be developing an Infrastructure Bank, for example, to mobilize both private and public capital, instead of enduring more years of mind-numbing debate about trickle-down economics and about how all public spending is contrary to the American way? Pulling together is the American way—it is how this country was built. It’s how our great national challenges were met. And, not so incidentally, it’s how millions of jobs were created and national prosperity achieved.

It’s a huge order. We know most people don’t trust business. But they don’t trust government either. Therein is a large part of the problem. Government is us—or needs to be. If government in Washington is broken, it’s up to us to fix it. If Congress can’t legislate its way out of a paper bag, elect a new one. If divided government is dysfunctional, try giving a majority control and see what it can do. But we have to do something.

And—here’s the big one—if we don’t like how other people vote, let’s get out and vote ourselves. What a tiny ask from a supposedly democratic society! Why should one-third of eligible voters be the only ones turning out to decide who gets elected to Congress? Are we spectators to a blood sport or participants in determining our own destiny? Aren’t we all in this together? Is there any way out if we don’t begin acting like we believe in self-government?

By Michael Copps.