OUR MAINTENANCE CRISIS
I challenge you to connect these dots:
The explosive failure of old buried natural gas mains in California; The blowout of aluminum fuselages in older Boeing 737 jets; The failure of water cooling systems in the older Japanese nuclear reactors; The pending fiscal “correction” of the USA’s federal and state governments.
A famous US immigrant, whose memory now fades, once told us that the measure of a society’s vigor is its attention to maintenance. That was Eric Hoffer (The True Believer, The Temper of Our Times), the longshoreman philosopher.
Any preening potentate can erect a splashy palace. But only a well organized, well funded and sustained effort can keep it up.
The modern and post modern culture has lost the basic sense of practical discipline needed to keep the sinews and bones of civilization in repair.
This was no accident.
Our attitudes and expectation are formed through the cumulative effects the small things; and they are institutionalized more by neglect than by intention.
Think about it a moment: At the level of day-to-day middle-class life in the US, who repairs things anymore? Do we routinely fix the toaster, the microwave, the stove, the refrigerator, the washer, the drier, the radio, the cell phones, the DVD, the flat screen, the desktop, laptop, net-book, hand held computer, or even the family cars?
An earlier generation fixed these things at home with simple tools or took them to a familiar shop nearby. But we can’t repair the data and processing chips that are embedded in our cars and appliances. We have been conditioned by cheap Asian imports to replace almost every gadget the moment it breaks.
Essentially, the entire cohort of post World War II generations – boomers included – have been gradually accommodated to a dump-and-replace mindset for all the small things in life, including for some, personal relationships. As a result, the instinct to repair and maintain the big things has lapsed, partly because they are invisible, mostly because of our well formed habits with the small things. We’ve been kicking a lot of cans down the road*, living in the delusionary state that we have been paying our dues all along. In that respect, we are like those “trustee” children who are about to discover that our parents’ estates were never intended to take them (or us) this far down the road, not without our own considerable contributions.
A recent ironic development in politics illustrates my point. Once upon a time, a 41 year old lawmaker, an economist and a good-government conservative type (Paul Ryan), felt called to run for congress^; then felt called to learn the fiscal truth; then felt called to actually tell it. Mr. Ryan is now offering the gift of adult supervision to our 49 year old president and to the mostly aging politicians now holding federal office. [The average age of the 111th congress is 58**].
All those can-kicking careers are coming to an end. The obscene scale of the current and projected national indebtedness will never allow us to ignore it.
The lesson of the moment: When core maintenance issues are chronically neglected long enough, one of four outcomes ensues: explosion, implosion, collapse or abandonment.
The blowouts of natural gas pipelines, of the aluminum skins on the 737’s and the roofs of Japanese nuclear reactor buildings; the implosions of the housing price bubbles and of the balance sheets of all the linked financial institutions; the collapse of Middle Eastern regimes, and of general confidence in the US dollar as the world’s one stable reserve currency; the wholesale abandonment of empty residential stock in Detroit and of America’s manufacturing preeminence, are all linked to a common mindset.
We knew all along that we should have been proactively maintaining and updating aging underground gas mains, commercial airlines airframes and fuselages, the old model nuclear reactors, our pre-automated industrial base, and the credibility of the US as a prudent and responsible borrower; and we knew that we should have been actively promoting enlightened leadership and modern public education in the suddenly unstable Middle Eastern regimes that we had been bribing, aiding and trading with over the years…but we chose to leave those festering problems and maintenance duties for a later time.
The time is up; and now the Great Adjustment is at hand. But I am an optimist. We will get through this series of crises – but so much more quickly if only we are willing to take on the salient problems in 2011-12, rather than in, say, another five years.
As we begin to seriously address the consequences of our chronic neglect, and to build in better checks against their repetition, several lessons will be learned:
It is better to have a highly automated industrial base than a hollowed out one. Consumer products need to be designed for routine self-repair. The really big things on which we all depend, the transportation system, the energy production and distribution systems must be overbuilt, over-checked and redundantly safeguarded. The financial system must be firmed up along “old fashioned” lines, in which the quant notions of solvency, prudence and financial accountability become more like bedrock expectations than exceptions. We need to recapture the milieu in which risk-consequences behavior is left to entrepreneurs in the private sector who are not punished for succeeding, nor protected from failing, freed from political favor or disfavor, allowed to keep their earnings and required to pay their bills; We urgently need to make certain that public sector borrowing is the rare exception, no longer the day-to-day modus operandi of the political class.
I am an optimist because we already have a critical mass of citizens who “get it.” The remaining question is whether their mindset will be allowed to govern policy before or after we have experienced more explosions, implosions, collapses and cases of asset abandonment.
This business goes well beyond the partisan politics of the day. Surely, we are able to squarely face the salient facts this year, and begin a major shift in policy direction by 2012. Surely we can….
Notes and References
- For more on our fiscal can kicking – see my post at this link — http://jaygaskill.com/WarningForcingMomentsAhead.htm .
^ For more on Paul Ryan, see this link in the Wall Street Journal–http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703806304576242612172357504.html
& “Paul Ryan and the Triumph of Policy”, in a New York Times Op Ed Blog at this link:
“You do not have to like the long-term budget that Paul Ryan and the House Republicans have released this morning. There’s plenty in the plan for liberals to hate, moderates to doubt, and conservatives to question. But you do have to respect it. As my colleague David Brooks writes today, it is ‘the most comprehensive and most courageous budget reform proposal any of us have seen in our lifetimes.”’
NYT – http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/05/paul-ryan-and-the-triumph-of-policy/
** And for more about the new political demographic, see the Wall Street Journal piece at this link:
“Overall, the influx of 87 new Republican House members who will be sworn in Wednesday will lower the average age of House Republicans to 54.9 from 56.5 in the last Congress, a new Wall Street Journal analysis of ages in the new Congress shows.
By contrast, Democrats in the House are moving in the opposite direction on the age scale. The 2010 election swept from office some of the party’s younger members from moderate swing districts, and the result is a Democratic caucus that is both more liberal and grayer. The average age of a Democratic House member will rise to 60.2 from 58.”
Jay B Gaskill is a well known California Attorney who has written extensively on these and related topics for the last several years.
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