Kicking Up Pebbles

It’s hard to maintain your fifth-rate imitation of Bill Evans at the piano when the other guy, on his Gibson L-5 – just like the one Django Reinhardt played on tour with Duke Ellington in 1946, and like Wes Montgomery and Eric Clapton and Lee Ritenour have played – is doing a fine Joe Pass. Sometimes you’re just outclassed – and amateurs probably shouldn’t jam with a guy who spent twenty years as a studio guitarist here in Hollywood, backing up just about everyone and on the soundtrack of three-quarters of the television shows in syndication. It seems to be one thing to know the harmonic structure of A Night in Tunisia – the odd chord progression and all the possible alternative inversions of those chords, and the modal lines that work on top, and when they do – but getting it done is the problem. Jazz isn’t about thinking. You’re supposed to do your thinking ahead of time, and develop your chops one your own time, alone. Dropping a Dorian Mode line on top of that alternating half-step stuff should be instinctive. It’s a matter of investing in building an infrastructure. Build a smooth straight road, with some cool sweeping turns, and you can drive at ninety and have a hell of a time. You don’t want to be stuck on a gravel road kicking up pebbles. And there is a musical equivalent to kicking up pebbles.

So that didn’t work out. Drinking wine out back and staring at the sky and talking was a better idea. But then the talk turned to politics, and the guitarist was a conservative of the libertarian sort – get the government out of everything and loose the wonders of unregulated free enterprise to make this a paradise on earth, where everyone takes personal responsibility for their own lives and doesn’t expect government at any level to bail them out when they do dumb-ass things or were too stupid to put money aside for when things fell apart for them. Why should he, who made it big all on his own, pay for any of that crap? And that of course led to the usual rant about FDR – the man who ruined America by turning its citizens into whiners who loved to play victim, and then demand the government provide support when they were out of work and a stipend when they retired, and fancy schools for their kids, and jobs in tough times. It was the usual Adam Smith through Ronald Reagan, by way of Milton Friedman, stuff – just simplified by that third bottle of wine.

And it was no good saying that unemployment insurance was just that – insurance. It was a pooled risk arrangement where everyone working paid in to cover those who might lose their job for this reason or that – no big deal.

But that would not do – if people were going to enter into pooled-risk contracts with others, those contracts should be bought and sold by private enterprise. An insurance company, because it had to make money for its shareholders, would run things far better than the government, which because it doesn’t have to make money would just mess things up. And he’d use the same argument for Social Security – sure, people paid in, year after year, for a guaranteed monthly annuity when they retired. But why should the government get involved in that at all? People can buy annuities anywhere, or buy stocks or commodities futures or indexed derivatives or whatever – and their broker or financial advisor, unlike the government, will steer them right, because he or she makes money by steering people right, and by taking a small cut, and they would not want to lose clients, which would happen if they messed up, as everyone would know. The government doesn’t face that pressure – and then he’d say his money was his money anyway. He wanted the option to do with it what he felt best. Of course this was before the Bernie Madoff thing.

So the talk would turn to the thirties – FDR ruined everything with the WPA and other agencies, and all that building of roads and bridges and damns and schools and whatnot. He’d argue that all that actually created the Great Depression – private enterprise was crowded out and withered and died, because the government was doing everything and they couldn’t compete. They were undercut by those who, unlike them, didn’t have to show a profit. You couldn’t compete with that, so you folded, and that’s what caused the Great Depression – FDR destroyed capitalism, or came damned close to destroying it. George Will makes the same argument of course – Obama is making the same FDR mistake, and destroying capitalism itself. The guitarist was not some oddball crank.

It was easy enough to say that all the new roads and bridges and damns and schools and whatnot were good to have – the upgrade made us a real twentieth-century nation, with a cool twentieth-century infrastructure. But you’d be told that wasn’t the point – we did it the wrong way, and inefficiently. Letting the demand build, then having someone make good money by meeting that demand, would have been far better. There’d have been no waste.

The counter to that was bringing up what Eisenhower did – the big project of the fifties, the Interstate Highway System. Had Eisenhower been a bad Republican, out to destroy capitalism? Why did the government have to do that? Why not wait until some corporation wanted to get its goods to market and some private corporation decided that they could make a lot of money buying up land and building a highway and charging for its use?

But there things changed. It seems the Interstate Highway System was a good thing. That was an investment – something for the good of everybody, like having an army to protect us, and he mentioned that Eisenhower sold it to America as a national security issue. We did have to move stuff around, and some of it was military stuff. But mainly it was an infrastructure thing, and additionally it just pleased him. Build a smooth straight road, with some cool sweeping turns, and you can drive at ninety and have a hell of a time. He was a professional jazz musician, after all.

But something else is going on now – first back in USA Today in February – the nation’s paved roads were being ripped up and turned to gravel here and there, as times were tight and maintaining paved road expensive. And in April it was an item in Bloomberg BusinessWeek – in North Dakota was the rebirth of gravel roads. And then in the middle of July it was the Wall Street Journal reporting from Spiritwood, North Dakota:

A hulking yellow machine inched along Old Highway 10 here recently in a summer scene that seemed as normal as the nearby corn swaying in the breeze. But instead of laying a blanket of steaming blacktop, the machine was grinding the asphalt road into bits.

“When [counties] had lots of money, they paved a lot of the roads and tried to make life easier for the people who lived out here,” said Stutsman County Highway Superintendant Mike Zimmerman, sifting the dusty black rubble through his fingers. “Now, it’s catching up to them.”

Outside this speck of a town, pop. 78, a 10-mile stretch of road had deteriorated to the point that residents reported seeing ducks floating in potholes, Mr. Zimmerman said. As the road wore out, the cost of repaving became too great. Last year, the county spent $400,000 on an RM300 Caterpillar rotary mixer to grind the road up, making it look more like the old homesteader trail it once was.

Paved roads, historical emblems of American achievement, are being torn up across rural America and replaced with gravel or other rough surfaces as counties struggle with tight budgets and dwindling state and federal revenue. State money for local roads was cut in many places amid budget shortfalls.

Okay, ducks floating in the potholes is amusing, but the story took a political turn:

The moves have angered some residents because of the choking dust and windshield-cracking stones that gravel roads can kick up, not to mention the jarring “washboard” effect of driving on rutted gravel.

But higher taxes for road maintenance are equally unpopular. In June, Stutsman County residents rejected a measure that would have generated more money for roads by increasing property and sales taxes.

“I’d rather my kids drive on a gravel road than stick them with a big tax bill,” said Bob Baumann, as he sipped a bottle of Coors Light at the Sportsman’s Bar Café and Gas in Spiritwood.

Whether Bob Baumann would say the same thing about the availability of universal healthcare, or aid to states to keep teachers and firemen and police on the job, is unclear. But the implication is not – better to do without even essential services than raise taxes and run up the debt, a debt that someone will have to pay off later. And what’s wrong with gravel roads?

But that gets complicated:

The Stutsman highway department, which gets the bulk of its funds from local property taxes, state fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees, let the road fall into disrepair as it juggled other projects. Every year without major maintenance, the road became more expensive to fix.

Judy Graves of Ypsilanti, N.D., voted against the measure to raise taxes for roads. But she says she and others nonetheless wrote to Gov. John Hoeven and asked him to stop Old 10 from being ground up because it still carries traffic to a Cargill Inc. malting plant.

It seems paved roads are useful. Most developed countries have them. There’s a reason for that.

But there are two sides to every story:

Gayne Gasal, who lives along the redone stretch of road, says it has turned out “better than we all thought.” But Sportsman’s Bar owner Hilda Kuntz worries that the classic cars and bikers that roll through town in the summer will stay away.

“It’s going to kill my business,” she said.

Curiously, in Slate, Jack Shafer say that’s just too bad, as really, the number of miles of road being unpaved is trivially low:

By USA Today’s count, 100 miles in Michigan, three miles in Tuscarora State Forest, Pa., and 11 miles in Hancock County, Ind., were unpaved over the last two years. Add to that number the 10 miles of roads in Stutsman County, N.D., that the BusinessWeek story reported were scheduled for shredding and the 100 miles of unpaving performed in South Dakota last year reported in the Wall Street Journal, and you’ve got just 224 miles of demoted road.

If we continue converting paved road into gravel road at the rate reported… we’ll eliminate all 2.7 million miles of the nation’s paved roads in about, oh, 24,000 years.

And he argues when a road gets unpaved, there’s usually a good reason for it:

The Wall Street Journal waits until the final paragraphs of its story to explain that Highway 10 – the North Dakota road that’s being unpaved and is the peg for its article – was made redundant in the 1950s by the construction of Interstate 94, which parallels it. Traffic on Highway 10 proceeded to fall and fall until the thoroughfare “became a lazy backcountry road dotted with abandoned farmsteads,” the Journal reports.

And after all, the locals don’t want to pay to keep the road paved – Shafer notes they’ve rejected at least four tax measures in the past twenty-two years that would have helped preserve their section of Highway 10. So all the commentary on this comes down to nostalgia:

There’s a preservationist instinct operating here that holds that anything that has been must always be.

He argues the place was over-paved long ago and now they have a declining population, so screw ’em. The Sportsman’s Bar on Highway 10 was probably a dump anyway – but Shafer doesn’t go that far.

But of course what made Shafer so curmudgeonly was all the commentary, like this from Paul Krugman:

The lights are going out all over America – literally. Colorado Springs has made headlines with its desperate attempt to save money by turning off a third of its streetlights, but similar things are either happening or being contemplated across the nation, from Philadelphia to Fresno.

Meanwhile, a country that once amazed the world with its visionary investments in transportation, from the Erie Canal to the Interstate Highway System, is now in the process of unpaving itself: in a number of states, local governments are breaking up roads they can no longer afford to maintain, and returning them to gravel.

And a nation that once prized education – that was among the first to provide basic schooling to all its children – is now cutting back. Teachers are being laid off; programs are being canceled; in Hawaii, the school year itself is being drastically shortened. And all signs point to even more cuts ahead.

Shafer says it’s just the roads, and useless roads at that, because Krugman said it was more than the roads:

In effect, a large part of our political class is showing its priorities: given the choice between asking the richest 2 percent or so of Americans to go back to paying the tax rates they paid during the Clinton-era boom, or allowing the nation’s foundations to crumble – literally in the case of roads, figuratively in the case of education – they’re choosing the latter.

It’s a disastrous choice in both the short run and the long run.

In the short run, those state and local cutbacks are a major drag on the economy, perpetuating devastatingly high unemployment.

And there’s the long run:

Everything we know about economic growth says that a well-educated population and high-quality infrastructure are crucial. Emerging nations are making huge efforts to upgrade their roads, their ports and their schools. Yet in America we’re going backward.

But some say we’re going forward – gravel is good and deferred debt is bad. And it’s the same old conversation, without the guitarist:

It’s the logical consequence of three decades of antigovernment rhetoric, rhetoric that has convinced many voters that a dollar collected in taxes is always a dollar wasted, that the public sector can’t do anything right.

The antigovernment campaign has always been phrased in terms of opposition to waste and fraud – to checks sent to welfare queens driving Cadillacs, to vast armies of bureaucrats uselessly pushing paper around. But those were myths, of course; there was never remotely as much waste and fraud as the right claimed. And now that the campaign has reached fruition, we’re seeing what was actually in the firing line: services that everyone except the very rich need, services that government must provide or nobody will, like lighted streets, drivable roads and decent schooling for the public as a whole.

It seems that we’re destined to have this same conversation forever, of course, even if on Labor Day, in Milwaukee, Obama tried to resolve it all:

President Obama, looking to stimulate a sluggish economy and create jobs, called Monday for Congress to approve major upgrades to the nation’s roads, rail lines and runways – part of a six-year plan that would cost tens of billions of dollars and create a government-run bank to finance innovative transportation projects.

With Democrats facing an increasingly bleak midterm election season, Mr. Obama used a speech at a union gathering on Labor Day, the traditional start of the campaign season, to outline his plan. It calls for a quick infusion of $50 billion in government spending that White House officials said could spur job growth as early as next year – if Congress approves.

But it won’t – they have only a few weeks of work left before they have to go home and work full time on getting reelected – and as this item in the New York Times puts it, Republicans “are showing little interest in giving Democrats any pre-election victories.”

But the odd thing is this new “infrastructure bank” – run by the government only to pool tax dollars with private investment, and then get out of the way. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ed Rendell and Michael Bloomberg love the idea – it would assure innovation by allowing a panel of experts to approve projects on merit, rather than having lawmakers steer transportation money back home, as is the usual way of doing things. It’s FDR stuff done right – getting the government out of the way quickly. And Obama has this idea from when he was a senator. He does like that middle ground.

But he won’t get his middle ground:

But the notion of a government-run bank – indeed, a government-run anything – is bound to prove contentious during an election year in which voters are furious over bank bailouts and over what many perceive as Mr. Obama pursuing a big government agenda. Even before the announcement Monday, Republicans were expressing caution.

The rest of the item details what they said – stop spending, stop spending, stop spending, stop spending, stop spending:

After months of campaigning on the theme that the president’s $787 billion stimulus package was wasteful, Republicans sought Monday to tag the new plan with the stimulus label. The Republican National Committee called it “stimulus déjà vu,” and Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House Republican whip, characterized it as “yet another government stimulus effort.”

These guys are still mad at FDR. And then there is John Boehner:

House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio Monday criticized President Barack Obama’s proposal to boost infrastructure investment as more stimulus spending doomed to fail. “As the American people, facing near double-digit unemployment, mark Labor Day by asking, where are the jobs, the White House has chosen to double-down on more of the same failed ‘stimulus’ spending,” Boehner said in a prepared statement.

Republicans have targeted an unemployment rate that continues to hover above 9 percent despite last year’s economic stimulus plan. “If we’ve learned anything from the past 18 months, it’s that we can’t spend our way to prosperity,” Boehner said.

Steve Benen comments:

Now, I realize that Boehner’s depth of policy knowledge is frighteningly limited, and that the poll-tested buzz words of his press releases might resonate, even if the conservative Ohioan doesn’t understand what he’s saying.

But it’d be fascinating to see Boehner think this through. Indeed, he’s already shown some inkling of thought on the subject — a year ago, when the stimulus boosted construction projects in Ohio, Boehner said the money was responsible for creating “much-needed jobs.”

Yep, he did say that – so, as Benen notes, he might be confused and conflicted or befuddled or something:

Even GOP leaders should be able to get this. By investing in infrastructure – roads, rail, airports – it pumps money into the economy, spurs a variety of industries, and does work Americans need to have done anyway. Infrastructure spending not only hires people to do the work, it helps with manufacturing, materials, and transport, and once the projects are done, the rebuilt and improved transportation networks help improve commerce.

The problem with Boehner’s response isn’t just that it’s dumb – though it is – the problem is its transparent superficiality. Spending is bad … because it’s spending … which is bad.

Ah, transparent superficiality – another good name for a rock band. And it’s about as serious:

There’s just no thought here. It’s knee-jerk conservatism, opposing effective ideas because the guy recommending them has a “D” after his name.

And see Joan Walsh on Obama’s Labor Day speech:

Wow. If President Obama fought every day like he did on Labor Day, talking to a group of Milwaukee union members, Democrats wouldn’t be looking at “enthusiasm gap” come November. The president, sleeves rolled up, looked like he was having a great time, joking about Republicans “sipping Slurpees” while Democrats did the tough work of getting the economy out of a ditch. For this passionate labor crowd, Obama dropped his talk of bipartisanship and hammered Republicans for opposing his agenda, even the tax cuts for small businesses they have traditionally backed.

“They talk about me like I’m a dog,” he said with a smile, and then noted that line wasn’t in his prepared text. He made a funny pun about Ds and Rs: “When you want to move your car forward, you put it in D, to drive. They want to put it in R, reverse.”

Heck, even the Hollywood Guitar Guy likes the Interstate Highway System – and a metaphor for election use is born. Build a smooth straight road, with some cool sweeping turns, and you can drive at ninety and have a hell of a time. You don’t want to be stuck on a gravel road kicking up pebbles. So don’t vote for the Party of Pebbles.

Oh yeah – and don’t try to keep up with professionals.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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