Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Silver Linings

Rep. Wendy McKamey is obviously on the right track when she urges Congress, in today’s Missoulian, to address the critical backlog of deferred maintenance in the nation’s national parks.  And folks down the Bitterroot are right to be alarmed by the President’s intention, in the budget he sent to Congress yesterday, to zero out an EPA program which restores degraded waterways and improves water quality. But as critical as these efforts are, the arguments that McKamey and the Bitterrooters are making for them are really pretty perverse.  For McKamey, the “silver lining” in the enormous task of restoring national parks is that it will create jobs - lots of jobs. For clean water advocates and activists in the Bitterroot, it’s the flow of dollars to contractors who repair roads that are sloughing off into creeks, or the nurseries that provide the plant stock for revegetating stream banks.

Now those are obviously good things. Construction workers need jobs, contractors need contracts, and nurseries need to sell plants. But in the final analysis, what the argument boils down to is this: these programs are a good thing because they will cost a lot.  The implication is that if we could somehow contrive to maintain parks and rivers without creating jobs or letting contracts or buying supplies, that is, without cost, these programs would be less worthwhile. 

What’s going on here is, of course, nothing new and it would be unfair to suggest that McKamey or the water advocates invented this fallacy. On the contrary, it’s standard operating procedure, when making decisions about the use of public resources, to choose the use that has the greatest economic impact. It’s far more politically astute and makes you sound far more hard headed and fiscally prudent to defend expensive programs because they will create jobs and sales, than to claim that they will have ephemeral benefits like historical preservation or access to wildlife viewing or healthier riparian habitat. 

But advocating for a public program because it has a fat economic footprint can take you down a blind alley.  There are a lot of environmental activists in Montana, for example, who argue that our stake in combatting climate change is the damage that will otherwise be done to our outdoor, agricultural and tourism economies. Obviously, they know that there is much, much more a stake than the jobs of fishing guides or motel workers or farmers, but it’s those jobs that they hope will get the attention of legislators and editorial writers. But walk down that alley and anyone can follow you. Once jobs become the only thing that counts, the loss of jobs for coal miners or oil rig workers becomes a perfectly plausible and appropriate reason for opposing any effort to arrest climate change.  

Indeed, if we’re going to arrest climate change, what’s to stop us from worrying about the loss of jobs for the construction workers who will move Miami to higher ground if sea levels keep on rising? That may sound crazy, but isn’t it something like what McKamey is implying? One of the “benefits” of neglecting maintenance and letting our national parks go to rack and ruin is the jobs that will be created cleaning the mess up!

What gets lost in this obsession with jobs is the fact that what both McKamey and the Bitterroot water folks are really talking about is the provision and maintenance of infrastructure. Not in tthe limited sense of bridges or roads or airports, but in the expansive sense of the stock of created and natural public capital. It’s stuff that contributes to our wellbeing just like bridges and roads do, and it needs to be attended to for that reason. But it’s not being attended to; it’s being abandoned, at least by the President. And he’s abandoning it at a time when he says, not very convincingly, that he wants to rebuild the national infrastructure. 

Ah well, looking for consistency in the intentions of Donald Trump, now that is a job.