The bottom line: We live in a complex society that requires intelligent planning, foresight and effective government to mediate between competing private interests and to organize and manage the infrastructure. The basic infrastructure needed to operate a modern city is mind-bogglingly complex – a series of interconnected systems that require constant maintenance, upgrades changes and improvements. The engineering feats required to simply install an effective sewer system for Salt Lake County’s million residents staggers the imagination. When it works smoothly, we don’t notice it. When it fails, it does so spectacularly.
A cornerstone of conservative ideology in practice is hostility to government planning – by its very nature, effective government planning violates the constrained thinking of “small government” conservatism. In Utah we have generally failed to plan for transportation needs and have responded to growth by adding more highways (which feeds the cycle of sprawl rather than managing it). East of Park City, the formerly rural areas of Kamas and Oakley are experiencing a building boom; one development in this area has been approved for something like 100 houses but there is only sufficient water for . . . zero of those houses. This kind of problem, however, is dwarfed by Atlanta, Georgia’s problem.
Atlanta is a booming, amazing city. It is also a metropolis whose infrastructure is wholly inadequate to meet the needs of its people.
Its freeway system – vast as it is – is inadequate to its demands, creating the kind of traffic jams one expects in LA (want to make an Atlantan angry? Compare their traffic problems to LA’s). The freeways are connected to suburban streets that simply cannot support the traffic that expects to drive on them to get to the freeways.
In recent years, Georgia has suffered a long drought. The crunch has hit. Rick Perlstein describes is as finishing what Sherman started.
Atlanta magazine could no longer ignore it. The cover of their “The Water Issue,” which I picked up on a recent swing through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, is graced by a water glass that’s one-quarter full—scratch that, three-quarters empty. The entire magazine is a fascinating document, a potsherd for future archeologists seeking answers to the kind of neuroses that allowed a civilization let itself be run according to an ideology—conservatism—so singularly unfit to govern a complex, modern society.
Amidst all the schmancy department store and Cartier watch ads, the columns on “Scent marketing” (“among Advertising Age’s top ten trends to watch in 2007”) and enticements to purchase property at marquee destinations like The Inn At Palmetto Bluff (“50 beautifully appointed waterfront cottages, full-service spa, inspired Lowcountry, cuisine, exclusive Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course…”)—the landscaping ad featuring the gushing backyard waterfall alongside the furnished stone gazebo was an especially decadent touch, directly across from a full-page ad for “Brookhaven Retreat, treating both addiction and mental health challenges”—these 176 pages document a narcissistic metropolis on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but not quite able to admit it.
Atlanta is a mass of suburban sprawl, chewing up ever more acres of the Georgia woods.
Missed opportunity after missed opportunity are adumbrated . . . [Atlanta] the magazine blames not ideology but “bureaucracy.” That’s all right for our purposes, because the ideology hides in plain sight. Atlanta boomed in the wake of the monster capital investments made in anticipation of the 1996 Olympics, the magazine reports; “In 1990, the Atlanta area was projected to draw 800,000 new residents over the next twenty years; in the ten years following the Olympics, the total population increased by almost 1.4 million…. But in that same ten-year period, the reservoirs that supply our most vital resource grew not a bit.”
Think about that. The total population grew by more than currently live in Salt Lake County and they did no planning for water.
Nobody could have anticipated the breach in the infrastructure: “In 1969, a study by the Atlanta Region Metropolitan Planning Commission…determined that significant infrastructure changes would be required to avoid critical water shortages when the metro area’s population soared to between 3 million (reached in 1993) an 5 million (2006). In the 1980s, water planners mapped out a proposed network of reservoirs throughout North Georgia to shore up water for inevitable droughts. Yet the reservoirs never got off paper. By the nineties, the projects were not only deemed to costly to pursue once rainfall returned in abundance, but they also threatened to further antagonize Alabama and Florida in the tri-state water dispute.” What did the Atlanta metropolitan area do instead? Issue building permits—48,262 in 1996; 68,240 in 2006. That’s the free-market way. The conservative way.
If this is happening in the traditionally water rich South, what does fate hold for desert Utah?
The failure that Perlstein points us to is a failure to take the role of government seriously, to realize that the competing interests of local business, local government, regional government, state government, interstate businesses and citizens need someone to coordinate them, to help bring them to the table and plan. Hostility to government – part and parcel of the conservative ideology – creates its own problems. Throughout the US, thirty years of conservative anti-government, anti-tax madness has created its own legacy of rolling failures. Bridges collapsing in Minnesota, levees failing all along the Mississippi river, sinkholes swallowing streets. These are foreseeable events, but a government crippled by anti-tax, anti-government ideology can’t act. Forced forever into a defensive crouch, conservative governance has proven itself incapable of doing what must be done to maintain the basic needs of a modern, complex society.
Forty years of hostility to government action has led Atlanta into a box canyon – ever more development, ever less planning. Conservatism triumphant. Newt Gingrich’s district was in the suburban sprawl north of Atlanta (think Provo without the sense of style and a whole lot more money). The ideology got him elected for years. It sounds good. It makes good soundbites. It won elections. The bill always comes due.
I have a friend who loves to say when it hurts bad enough, you’ll change. I wonder: How much more pain Atlanta’s people are prepared to suffer before they change?