Water, Water Everywhere–But is it Safe to Drink?

Real-life circumstances are yet again making the point: Public services are not free. One way or another, they have to be paid for.

Now it’s water, not just in one state but in cities and towns across the country. You’d think people would want the water they drink to be clean and safe, but apparently too many of us have gotten used to paying next to nothing for the water we drink and cook with, shower in and flush down the toilet. Our water systems are crumbling and overflowing, sometimes with raw sewage, and it still hasn’t fully sunk in that fixing this will take real money—but it’s worth doing right.

Today, a significant water line bursts on average every two minutes somewhere in the country, according to a New York Times analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data.

In Washington alone there is a pipe break every day, on average, and this weekend’s intense rains overwhelmed the city’s system, causing untreated sewage to flow into the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.
State and federal studies indicate that thousands of water and sewer systems may be too old to function properly.

For decades, these systems — some built around the time of the Civil War — have been ignored by politicians and residents accustomed to paying almost nothing for water delivery and sewage removal. And so each year, hundreds of thousands of ruptures damage streets and homes and cause dangerous pollutants to seep into drinking water supplies.

As the head of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority is quoted pointing out, “People pay more for their cellphones and cable television than for water…You can go a day without a phone or TV. You can’t go a day without water.”

As Atrios notes,

I’ve long chafed at those who suggested “shovel ready projects” were hard to find as fixing water/sewer systems is both an obvious need and in many places fairly simple. Dig up road, replace pipe, fix road, repeat. There are places with more complex engineering issues, of course.

This is the choice: Either we pay—whether in water bills or taxes—for significant repairs to the nation’s crumbling water and sewer systems, or we have more and more pipe breaks and contaminated water. There’s a whole political industry dedicated to obscuring that fact, but in the end it really is that simple.

Tags: ,

Not “Make Work”

At Daily Kos, Devilstower has some advice for President Obama as he prepares for his jobs summit:

1. Drop the word “infrastructure”

I spent years as an enterprise architect. My father did decades more as a city manager. I can tell you that whether you’re talking about database servers or sewer pipe, the word “infrastructure” is the first step in either putting your audience to sleep or making your project seem too abstract to be relevant. If you mean “let’s build highways,” then say “let’s build highways.”

–snip–

5. There’s no such thing as “make work” jobs

Work has consequences that are bigger than the thing being worked on. It doesn’t matter whether it’s cleaning trash along the highway or building rockets for NASA, work itself is a net positive. Besides, what turns out to be important is hard to predict. All those jobs that people complained about as “make work” seventy years ago? Those jobs built things like the gorgeous Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood. The splendid stone bridge at Cumberland Mountain State Park in Tennessee. Beautiful paths, lodges, shelters, cabins, and camping areas at hundreds of state and federal parks — along with more than 3,000 fire towers to watch over those parks. Many of the structures created by the WPA and the CCC have far outlasted contemporary structures built by people doing “real jobs” and have done so elegantly, wonderfully, in a way that’s uniquely and perfectly American.

Meanwhile, Atrios says:

The fierce urgency of sometime next year is really depressing me. I know my views are clouded somewhat by my life in an older urban hellhole, but the list of possible productive infrastructure projects are practically infinite. I’m not talking about make work, I’m talking about real projects from basic maintenance to sewers to pothole filling to the demolishing and reclaiming of property with abandoned buildings etc… etc…

And by way of illustration:

But despite those upgrades, many sewer systems are still frequently overwhelmed, according to a New York Times analysis of environmental data. As a result, sewage is spilling into waterways.

In the last three years alone, more than 9,400 of the nation’s 25,000 sewage systems — including those in major cities — have reported violating the law by dumping untreated or partly treated human waste, chemicals and other hazardous materials into rivers and lakes and elsewhere, according to data from state environmental agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency.

–snip–

As cities have grown rapidly across the nation, many have neglected infrastructure projects and paved over green spaces that once absorbed rainwater. That has contributed to sewage backups into more than 400,000 basements and spills into thousands of streets, according to data collected by state and federal officials. Sometimes, waste has overflowed just upstream from drinking water intake points or near public beaches.

I’m going to go with the view that keeping sewage out of my basement is not “make work” or some boring, abstract notion of infrastructure. How about you?

Tags: ,

Who’ll Stop the Rain?

The deluge of unemployment continues unabated. Behind the headline news that the unemployment rate jumped to 10.2% in last Friday’s BLS report for October, the more ominous numbers from the household survey were these:

In October, the number of unemployed persons increased by 558,000 to 15.7 million.

Another 9.3 million Americans are underemployed, working only part-time despite wanting full-time work. And another 2.4 million people not counted in the labor force are also out of work.

27.4 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed. As Laura Clawson has reported here that’s a shocking 17.5%.

October marked the 22nd consecutive month of overall job losses, and the 33rd consecutive month of job losses in construction. While employers reported cutting 190,000 private, non-farm jobs, the household survey noted the number of employed persons declined by 589,000 last month.

Still, based on reports of third quarter GDP growth of 3.5%, many if not most economists and media pundits proclaim the recession is over.

But Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz says the recession in the U.S. is “nowhere near” an end. Federal stimulus and related assistance for housing and auto sales, he notes, played a significant role in producing the third quarter GDP. But having just passed the peak of positive stimulus impact on the economy, sustaining that growth becomes highly problematic.

Professor Stiglitz, it should be noted, predicted this recession before it began, warning of the dangerous confluence of the housing bubble, bloated financial speculation, lax regulation and the undermining influence of the 2001 Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

And now more Americans are unemployed than at any time in our history, more even than in 1933 at the depths of the Great Depression.

Writing as if he were an advisor to President Obama, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert today says

The biggest issue by far for most Americans is employment.

…rebuilding the economy in a way that allows working Americans to flourish will require a sustained monumental effort, not just bits and pieces of legislation here and there.

Renewed calls for just such a “sustained monumental effort” include those for a new national Infrastructure Development Bank to promote large-scale projects and sustained long-term growth.

Still, more needs to be done immediately to address the jobs crisis — to put the breaks on layoffs and spur renewed employment. State and local governments need more assistance to avoid further workforce cuts. In the private sector, economist Dean Baker proposes an innovative way to help employers avoid more layoffs while maintaining workers’ incomes.

The Economic Policy Institute proposes an array of job-creation tax credits.

With massive unemployment, including teenage unemployment at a record 27.6%, economist Paul Krugman asks “Why Not a WPA?”

There’s no lack of ideas to address the jobs crisis. But time is of the essence. As EPI’s Heidi Shierholz writes, the October unemployment report should be a wake-up call for policy makers.

Tags: , ,

What Can Be Done for Jobs and Recovery?

Wall Street is all giddy about the surge of ‘green shoots’ it’s seeing, including huge bonuses for investment bankers.

But on Main Street most of the ‘green shoots’ we’re seeing are the ones coming up through the floorboards of the foreclosed homes, shuttered factories and abandoned shops and businesses.

After last month’s really bad jobs numbers, which pegged the official unemployment rate at 9.8% and reported the loss of another 263,000 jobs in September, there was renewed talk from the White House and the editorial pages about the need to address the employment crisis.

There has been movement in Congress on extending unemployment benefits for an additional 13 to 20 weeks to help the hundreds of thousands of unemployed Americans on the verge of exhausting their benefits. This should be an emergency safety net no-brainer. But as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) writes at the Huffington Post Senate Republicans are blocking the measure, as if to show that they have neither hearts nor brains.

The AFL-CIO is calling on the Senate to end the Republican’s obstruction, and is being joined by 14 Senators urging swift action to extend unemployment benefits across the country.

But beyond the obvious necessities to extend jobless benefits, COBRA access and food stamp relief, precious little has been offered thus far to go further in addressing the jobs crisis and the need for a real recovery on Main Street.

One of the clearer voices offering substantive, specific ideas has been former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. Writing on his blog in the wake of last month’s unemployment numbers, he asked, somewhat rhetorically, Specifically, What Should Be Done For Jobs? and outlined these four steps:

(1) Use existing authority under both the stimulus package enacted earlier this year and the nefarious TARP bailout fund — extending and combining them into a fund to make up for state and local cuts in public school budgets, childrens’ health, public health (we need workers to administer swine flu vaccine) and public transportation. Instead of bailing out banks and giant automakers, we should switch to bailing out public services that average people need.

(2) Propose a one-year payroll tax holiday on the first $20,000 of income. Republicans as well as Blue Dog Dems could go along with this, and it would be a highly progressive tax cut since 80 percent of Americans pay more in payroll taxes than they do in income taxes.

(3) Give small businesses a “new jobs tax credit” for every net new job created over the next year. Granted, under normal circumstances this sort of jobs credit doesn’t have much effect, and it’s difficult to separate hires that would have happened anyway from net new ones. But we’re not in normal circumstances; small businesses, which are responsible for most new jobs, still aren’t hiring. They need a boost.

(4) Dramatically expand the Small Business Administration’s lending programs and have the Fed buy up the SBA’s debt. Big banks are not lending to small businesses. TARP has been an utter failure in this regard. The SBA and the Fed should circumvent them and help small businesses get the capital they need, so they can start hiring again.

These steps, Reich writes, would be beneficial and not too tough to do.

With the next unemployment report, for October, scheduled to be released in two weeks, we should be hearing more about specific proposals to support the jobless, create new jobs and generate a real recovery here on Main Street.

Tags: , , , ,