Things Fall Apart

December 29th, 2008

Inside Thirteen Blogger: David Brancaccio, host and senior editor of NOW on PBS

The Big Fix,” part of Thirteen’s “Blueprint America” series, airs December 30th at 9:00 pm.

Idiocracy’s vision of the future

One of the finest pieces of satire ever committed to film is “Idiocracy,” an underrated 2006 feature from Mike Judge that projects what society will look like after 500 more years of dumbing down. By then, according to the comedy, hardly anyone reads, most are barely articulate, and the food supply is about to fail because crops have been irrigated with Gatorade (actually “Brawndo“) because policymakers believed advertisements that said the energy beverage was good for you. What is especially resonant is the state of the infrastructure as depicted in the film. If you watch the background carefully, you can see the crumbling hulks of what were once highway overpasses or bridges left to rot in a society incapable of planning ahead.

It is clear that could be the future of America’s infrastructure if current trends of neglect are allowed to continue unabated. And as the collapse of the 35W Bridge in Minneapolis two summers ago made shockingly clear, we won’t have to wait 500 years for things to fall apart. While no politician is in favor of potholes, dangerous bridges, or traffic jams, fixing what needs to be fixed will cost a colossal amount of money in a time when the economic collapse is demanding great rivers of public money for front-and-center needs of all kinds.

However, the economic crisis and the pressing need to fix the infrastructure may have crashed together in a useful way. Economist and op-ed columnist Paul Krugman made the case for our cameras just hours after he got off the plane from Stockholm where he had just picked up his Nobel Prize for Economics. I conducted this interview for the Blueprint America project, a year-long PBS initiative on infrastructure. The interview will conclude a special called “The Big Fix” airs December 30th at 9:00 pm on Thirteen, and later, will be watchable online.

Krugman has long pondered the last big economic crisis similar in magnitude to the one we face now. He has just freshened up his 1999 book “The Return of Depression Economics,” and he says the principles of the 1930s apply now: Roosevelt spent government money mightily on infrastructure and so must Obama. He must spend a lot, the spending needs to start right away, and according to Krugman, the spending has to be sustained. Roosevelt got in trouble, the economist argues, when he slowed spending, prompting a recession in 1937.

Krugman teaches at Princeton and he included on his personal list of infrastructure spending perhaps a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River to New York. Alternative energy, the next generation internet, computerizing health care, building new classrooms all count toward the goal of keeping the U.S. out of depression. And building a better country, I asked? Yes, both goals in tandem, Krugman said.

This is, of course, money the U.S. Treasury does not have, especially given last fall’s rescue/bailout for banks. However, the interest rates the government has to pay to borrow the money is extremely low these days, which will help. Still, a few years hence, when the U.S. is out of recession, there is no getting round the big bill that will have to be paid.

As Chinua Achebe wrote, “Things Fall Apart.” That has happened to our economy and our infrastructure, but that confluence of timing could be an historic opportunity.