Thursday, June 2, 2011

Living in a tea party fantasy

     So, the space race took off, and the United States stayed behind. John Kennedy had great ambitions for it and for us, but as 50-year-old tapes now reveal, he was concerned that budget hardliners would shoot it down.

     And so they did, and the Soviets draped the heavens in red.

     It was the same with Richard Nixon and the Environmental Protection Agency — opposed by spending hardliners and states-rights devotees. So, when time can to declare Lake Erie dead, they just mixed its ambient solids with asphalt and paved it.

     It's all as the anti-government crusaders of a future century would have it.

     The Centers for Disease Control? Never happened. The Public Health Service, the umbrella organization under which the CDC was established, didn't happen,  because anti-spending forces said that disease control was best left up to Doc Jones down the road.

      So, when diphtheria and malaria swept the country, Americans attributed it to God's vengeance for the outbreak of rock 'n roll.

      The interstate highway system didn't happen, either. Too costly and federal. Roads would be left up to each state and berg. If they connected, they connected. And they didn't. States like Texas that didn't want to be a part of the whole weren't, literally.

      Dwight Eisenhower called the interstates essential not just for commerce but for military readiness. But of course, they weren't. They were just more big government from Washington.

      Airports? No need for federal involvement. Local governments could take care of that — if they wanted to face the wrath of taxpayers. And most city council members and county commissioners didn't run to do that.

      All of these things the federal government didn't have to do, according to the Constitution: fly to the moon; build highways and airports; protect the air, water and soil; guard against epidemics.

      In a tea party fantasy world, it wouldn't have happened.

      This musing surged the other day to read that House Republicans seek to zero out two key programs that affect many lives: the Transportation Enhancement component of the Surface Transportation Act, and the Safe Routes to Schools program. Both assist communities in meeting pedestrian needs and building pedestrian-bicycle infrastructure.

    Transportation for America, an advocacy group that promotes such needs, points out that 47,700 Americans died from 2000 to 2009 when struck and killed walking. To often those deaths are due to the lack of safe places for their feet to be.

      The Safe Routes to Schools program targets blighted inner-city areas where children walk to school. I walked one such area in Texas — before and after. Before: Children walked in the streets or in fields demarcated by broken bottles. After: Well, let's just say most U.S. taxpayers would be proud of what they did there with a very modest investment.  

     Those who would shut these functions down would say we don't have the roughly $1 billion annual outlay the two programs represent. Sure we don't. Not when we'll spend $708 billion on the military this fiscal year alone, maybe building walkways in Kabul.

    The tea partiers will say sidewalks and bike lanes are a local matter, and federal aid to cities should cease, anyway. Then again, when many of them — they who have fled the multicolored nature of the city — take their wealth to their suburban neverlands, it's hard for cities to meet many needs at all. Oh, and these people still come back to dine, and work or sell their wares to those people they flee.

       What a dream: to just run from it all, the whole the American experience, the shared communal responsibility that has defined this land. Welcome to the fantasy.

       Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

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