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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

what kind of public works? « Previous | |Next »
November 22, 2008

Mike Davis has published a couple of interesting books ---City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear --- which created controversy over Davis’s ambiguous balancing of academic research and reportage. This work, which represents a coming together of Davis's urban concerns with his wider environmental agenda, can act as a prism through which to evaluate interpretations of the modernist city based on supersized lifestyles-addicted to fossil fuels, shopping sprees, suburban sprawl, and gas guzzling cars. Will Americans give up their SUVs, McMansions, McDonald's, and lawns?

Davis has an interesting couple of paragraphs in a recent article in Salon on the US economy.

America's "Futurama" is defunct. The famous walk-through diorama of a car-and-suburb world, imagineered by Norman Bel Geddes for General Motors at the 1939 New York World's Fair, has weathered into a dreary emblem of our national backwardness. While G.M. bleeds to death on a Detroit street corner, the steel-and-concrete Interstate landscape built in the 1950s and 1960s is rapidly decaying into this century's equivalent of Victorian rubble.

As we wait in potholed gridlock for the next highway bridge to collapse, the French, the Japanese and now the Spanish blissfully speed by us on their sci-fi trains. Within the next year or two, Spain's high-speed rail network will become the world's largest, with plans to cap construction in 2020 at an incredible 6,000 miles of fast track. Meanwhile China has launched its first 200-mph prototype, and Saudi Arabia and Argentina are proceeding with the construction of their own state-of-the-art systems. Of the larger rich, industrial countries, only the United States has yet to build a single mile of what constitutes the new global standard of transportation.

Davis argues for a public-works strategy for national recovery. But what kind of public-works strategy? Should it be transport infrastructure, health and education or green manufacturing? Davis has a history of being critical of the modernist urbanization of Los Angeles

He says:

I'm not an infrastructure-crisis denialist, but first things first. We are now at a crash site, and our priority should be to save the victims, not change the tires or repair the fender, much less build a new car. In the triage situation that now confronts the president-elect, keeping local schools and hospitals open should be the first concern, rebuilding bridges and expanding ports would come next, and rescuing bank shareholders at the very end of the line.

He says that saving (and expanding) core public employment is, hands-down, the best Keynesian stimulus around. Federal investment in education and healthcare gets incomparably more bang for the buck, if jobs are the principal criterion, than expenditures on transportation equipment or road repair.

Will this happen in Australia? Or will we go the big infrastructure route and cut back on health and education?

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 3:30 PM | | Comments (7)


The Google CEO has called for infrastructure investment, but green or smart (e.g. less wasteful/adaptive power distribution grids).

I've got a few links here

Davis is full of crap, seriously. Gas is down to $2.50 a gallon again (from a high of $4.50) and I still drive a V8 and live in the suburbs. Detroit has been on its last legs for the last 30 years. Yet cars still somehow get sold in the US.

Davis has a penchant for exploring “the deepest anxieties of a post modernist era—above all the collapse of American modernist belief in an utopian national
destiny.” He does have a tendency to depict the options of the future as closed.

I guess there are several issues here. Firstly, as Ezrea Klein points out:

doing nothing to bail out the auto industry is likely to lead to the sector's liquidation, which would mean the economy sheds three million jobs, further decimating demand and deepening an ongoing recession. Conversely, if we bail out GM and the company just limps along for four or five more years before collapsing, we'll have lost a substantial sum of money

Cars will continue to be built and driven but the glory days are well truly gone as the gas guzzling automobile as the icon of the American standard of living is displaced.

Secondly, there is the modernist Futurama issue of the automated highways and vast suburbs and its extension in the 1964 New York Fair in which GM's show consisted of visitors seated in moving armchairs glided past detailed scenery showing what life might be like in the "near-future." Technological dreaming as it were. Davis argues that LA style modernism destroys the urbanity of the city in favor of the sprawl of the suburbs in a system he portrays as in the end as "combustible".

One question is what some of the alternatives to suburban sprawl might be, and what structures need to change to bring alternate urban forms of growth into being?

Suburban sprawl is not limited to Los Angleles or to the US. Modern Adelaide is based on it.

Suburban sprawl is now the standard North American and Australian pattern of growth. It is an invention, conceived by architects, engineers, and planners, and promoted by developers in the great sweeping aside of the old neighbourhood city that occurred after the Second World War.

There is a growing movement in North America to put an end to suburban sprawl and to replace the automobile-based settlement patterns of the past fifty years with a return to more traditional planning principles. This movement stems not only from the realization that sprawl is ecologically and economically unsustainable but also from an awareness of sprawl's many victims: children, utterly dependent on parental transportation if they wish to escape the cul-de-sac; the elderly, warehoused in institutions once they lose their driver's licenses; commuters, stuck in traffic for two or more hours each day; the urban poor, isolated in deteriorating cities without access to jobs or services.

Exchange v Use value again.
This is like the one on telly last week about the snot-nosed yuppie Chinese woman who couldn't get past purchasing Louis Vuitton-level handbags,etc.
People are addicted; can't BELEIVE they can survive without their particular version of marketing-inscribed fetish.
Thinking about it, even
I'm addicted. I'm addicted to my computer and computer games to the point that I've stopped doing a whole heap of other stuff.
Other can't live without their v-eights, botox, fashions, etc,etc.
Every so often an opportunity presents itself, when things go bad and the system shows signs of collapsing under its own contradictions, inhumanity and inefficiency, for people to be persuaded to revaluate what they REALLY need in life.
And almost immediately those possessed of this gift chicken out.
Kevin Rudd and Julia Gullard had this opportunity, but baulked, as Obama will.
They get nervous about withdrawal of THEIR addiction(in their case power) and return to reinforcing rather than challenge stereotypes, once elected.
Which is, incidentally, why nothing has been done to repair public broadcasting or hold up the dumbing down of press.
Even Dubya had a crack half through his administration, talking about gasoline "addiction". But he backed off quickly, when the whining started.