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Why Sensible Policies Don't Get Implemented

Cornucopia Politics

The news should be heartening to green-minded people throughout Western New York: The federal Homeland Security authorities have confirmed that $300 million will not be available for constructing a massive blacktop desert in what is now the Peace Bridge neighborhood, because Homeland Security sees no need for a big truck plaza there. This should be the signal for the area’s construction firms, engineers, and tradesmen to turn their sights on the urgent project for which there is actual federal funding already in place, specifically from the dedicated Great Lakes Restoration fund. This project—over $110 million of whose local public matching funds are also in hand, currently held by the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation—could transform the Buffalo River watershed from a wasteland of brownfields and poisoned fish into a clean and green waterfront.

Not having money for a carbon-belching Peace Bridge plaza is a blessing, especially as—once again—Mideast turmoil raises the spectre of $150-a-barrel oil, which translates into $5-a-gallon gas, which ought to result in Washington getting serious about energy-efficient trains and alternative fuels…again. Some theorists, like Richard Janszen of, think that the inherent fragility of our international economy means that a crisis as in Egypt might create another global crisis. The more immediate concerns of Buffalo and other Great Lakes communities is that they will, over the next two years, lose Congressional representation. Here on the North Coast, the federal cornucopia may be ending its endless Christmas.

Oil issues connect the short-term concern about oil-price disruption and long-term infrastructure issues. We may be nearing the end of cheap, abundant petroleum, and there is no technological alternative to replace it. Those wily Canadians will certainly step up oil-sands production, and sell us all the greenhouse-gas-producing oil they can—at a steep price. More carbon, more despoliation in Alberta, and more trade deficits will result, but in a depopulating region like ours, the dumbest thing to do while oil from anywhere rises in price is to commit ourselves to relying upon more and more of it. It would seem pretty logical, then, that if there are a few thousand construction workers who want work here, they should work their representatives to take advantage of the only construction money that’s really readily available—namely, the Great Lakes Restoration fund. A cleaned-up waterfront for Buffalo could actually be a reality, and could make the water-rich Buffalo area a better place to live in an oil-challenged future.

Civilians tend to be able to connect these dots. Not so, apparently, our local elected officials. They’re either pledging to go back to the Republican-dominated House of Representatives to fetch the hundreds of millions for the Peace Bridge (US Representative Higgins and Senator Schumer), or they’re silent about the big opportunity of federally funded environmental remediation (US Representatives Slaughter and Lee). Western New York will lose another Congressional seat before the next Congressional election; should President Obama win re-election, one must ask how likely it will be that a Sunbelt-dominated House of Representatives is going to do an about-face and ladle $300 million into a Rust Belt district even if the House once again goes Democratic, given that Homeland Security has already said no. Should Obama lose, the likelihood of that money coming here will go from slim to none. And in any case, the long-term question remains: Why invest in oil-based transport that’s inefficient (trucks) rather than in trains and clean water?

One hopes that all the people who want to do green infrastructure—laborers, skilled tradesmen, engineers, environmentalists, and some currently epicene officials—will hurry up and figure out that the cash that’s actually available for a clean-water project should be grabbed before Congressional Republicans make good on their pledge to wipe out $100 billion of federal spending. (The claim that Tea Party Republicans are anti-earmark rings true, thus: Sunbelt Republicans are definitely against earmarks for Democratic districts, like Buffalo’s.)

The alternative? Buffalo could go ahead with the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation plan, which will sink a total of $53 million more into replica canals, parking garages, and consultant fees, leveraging nothing except wished-for but unlikely matching private dollars. Once that pot of public money is empty, and thus unavailable to leverage the federal clean-water dollars now sitting in a Washington account, Buffalo will surely have its replica canals and the rest—plus a potentially huge new unfunded mandate. Conditions in the Buffalo River watershed currently served by the Buffalo Sewer Authority puts it in violation of the Clean Water Act—which means that the Buffalo Sewer Authority could well be instructed, by a court or by a federal agency, to clean up our nasty water anyway. Where would Buffalo get the money to do that? Simple: The sewer authority would simply double or triple the rates that its customers pay to come up with the local matching share—money that we have today, except that today’s money is going to be used to buy replica canals, parking garages, and consulting services instead of shielding us from a big local tax increase.

Could the federal government force Buffalo to clean up its messy, smelly, fish-disfiguring, floatie-filled water? You betcha it could. And if it does, we should expect to see a local Tea Party—a Green Tea movement—composed of every progressive advocate of homeowners, renters, churches, small businesses, and everybody else under our Buffalo sun, because ratepayers in our moderate-income burg would then be saddled with a completely unnecessary and avoidable burden in each of our mailboxes, postmarked Buffalo Sewer Authority, to pay for a job that other money could have paid for.

Why would our elected leaders chase a fantasy of a truck-traffic bonanza when there’s a clean and green—and largely paid-for—alternative right in front of our noses? Why would elected officials and their brilliant, high-achieving staffers ignore the problem stinking up those waterfront-oriented noses when a solution is at hand?

I blame Francis Fukuyama.

Fantasies of endless abundance

Back in 1989 and 1990, when the Berlin Wall was breached and Communism disintegrated, everybody believed in the peace dividend. A generation has since grown up not knowing about mutually assured destruction, Stalin, Communism, or air-raid drills. The hundreds of billions of American taxpayer dollars that were annually “stolen” from us (to quote our late President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who thus characterized defense spending) were going to be available for peaceful purposes—like cleaning up our waterways and building the American version of the super-fast trains that Europe has had for 30 years. The American way had triumphed, and we were going to thrive on peace.

That was Francis Fukuyama’s point in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man. This former State Department planner’s book was profoundly influential, first among conservative intellectuals, then for a much wider audience. He announced that the triumph of the West over Communism was proof that history does indeed have a direction, and that that direction is toward the everlasting and ever-growing abundance made possible by what is working out to be humanity’s highest organizational triumph—liberal democracy and representative government, exemplified by none other than Uncle Sam. When Fukuyama celebrated, lots of people applauded. That applause echoes in our policies today.

Though intellectuals all over academia may resent Fukuyama his fame, and pick nits in his reading of Hegel and Nietzsche, there is simply no denying his influence. It’s not that he was a pioneer or an outlier: His role was to give gravitas and context to self-congratulating American and European elites in a world consisting of countries governed by tribal thugs, criminal gangs, or control-mad ideologues. The myth of being rich while also being good gained full voice. What this particular intellectual wrote in 1992 became part of the political discourse of candidates and editorial pages and public expectation, too. So all through the prosperous 1990s, it was believable when he posited that humanity will demand that everyplace become more and more like America. “Moreover,” he wrote, “the logic of modern natural science would seem to dictate a universal evolution in the direction of capitalism.”

Missing from his narrative is anything about how all our wealth, all our consumption, all our globalization, all our suburbanization, are all stones in an archway whose keystone is oil in cheap abundance. Also missing is the notion that it wasn’t capitalism per se, but the well ordered, well regulated capitalism of the New Deal and the Great Society, with its huge and photogenic and healthy middle class, and not capitalism as a hedge fund manager’s ideal of deregulation, that became the world’s icon of the personal fulfillment that American-style freedom could deliver. Missing as well is the notion that being so rich could ever make the world so dirty that not even advanced technology could clean it all up. Missing, in short, is any sense of limits, or of consequences.

Hating taxes, loving handouts

Also missing from Fukuyama’s narrative is what we see in Buffalo, New York, and throughout the Rust Belt, where participatory democracy and free-market capitalism have given us the elite’s deindustrialization and widespread abandonment of a mature, medium-sized but withal very civilized communities. Strangely, for all the blame one hears of government, these are places whose elected and non-elected leaders alike act as if certain kinds of compensating abundance, namely, imported public funds, are not only permanent but our special prerogative as well. Here in Buffalo, hundreds of millions of federal and state dollars for new college and court buildings, new roads, new bridges and private enterprises, are expected from the never-ending public cornucopia. Very little ever gets to cleanup projects, which would benefit many but not enrich the few. And the messaging of these tax-hating, public-fund-grabbing elites is ever hostile to the living wage, to unions or employment security, or to public goods as once defined.

One of Fukuyama’s chapters is entitled “Accumulation without end,” which he concludes by saying that history has yet to yield a better politico-economic system, as measured by how much abundance it creates for so many. But think of our hometowns: devoured resources, spent lands, residues of production, stewardship abandoned, uncomprehending elites who practice “accumulation without end.” Abundance, it seems, has a public price.

And a more fundamental cognitive dissonance in our leadership is a mainstay: While the consensus of climate scientists is that humanity had better get cracking on some workable concept of limits, neither locally nor nationally do we see empowered folks doing much to contrive strategies to adapt to any new constraints that nature might impose.

A baby born on the day that the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989 would be 21 today—old enough to drink beer in Buffalo, old enough to vote in an election, old enough to enter into a contract, and certainly old enough to connect to even a 21-year-old’s experience the philosophical musings of a professor whose book celebrated the true peace dividend at the time it was created. Living in a community whose county executive hoards $74.5 million in federal “stimulus” money while ending daycare subsidies for working mothers, slashing libraries, and telling his health and environment commissioners to stop applying for federal grants, who subsidizes suburban roads and suburban police patrols and slashes urban culturals and jettisoned urban parks, that 21-year-old could rationally conclude this: The suburbs won the Cold War, but the cities, the environment, and any sense of shared community lost that war.

Fukuyama predicted a future of complete triumph for liberal democracy and capitalism. An earlier writer who also imagined the end of history, Vladimir Illych Lenin, predicted that financier-driven globalism (he called it “imperialism”) would be the last stage of capitalism, after which the proletariat would rise up, led by a vanguard, and smash it into a new utopia.

Smart boys indulge in magical thinking, too. What neither of these two can be expected to have imagined was that not even technology could change our collective outcome: oil-depleted, heated-up, potentially unlivable due to desertification in many places, potentially unlivable due to the lack of affordable fertilizers and pesticides in others, and coastlines under seawater—whether because humanity burned too many barrels of oil, or because humanity ran out of new barrels of oil.

Even in Buffalo, global trends just might matter—perhaps we will become relevant again as a well-watered place, perhaps even a refuge of livability, if our water isn’t poisonous. As we watch the output from the ever-producing Washington and Albany cornucopias dwindle, even as we hope for those demonstrators in Egypt that they get the individual freedom that they want, it would seem that our best shot at having a future would be to concentrate our efforts on what will serve us best, oil crisis or no oil crisis. Clean water works. Regional interconnectedness works. Rail works. Libraries, parks, and riverside paths work.

A big black asphalt pond next to the Peace Bridge? That won’t work. And we’re not going to get it anyway, so let’s focus on the job at hand: cleanup from the age of accumulation without end.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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