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America in Decline 1

American towns can't afford to pave the streets their ancestors built.

By Will Offensicht  |  July 20, 2010

We at Scragged have deplored many trends which are visible in our society today - increased government intrusion in our lives, declining economic activity, declining academic performance, and much else.  As a democracy, we voters have a chance to turn things around, mainly by telling our politicians that we don't like what they're doing and voting them out when they don't listen.  After a few election cycles of that, they might get the idea.

It's hard for voters who have to make a living to focus on cutting government spending over a number of election cycles.  That's why big-spenders have an advantage - they can go to work for the government which lets them spend significant time lobbying for more money.  The rest of us have to take time off from work to lobby for less spending.

This series of articles will focus on less well-known signs that things are indeed coming apart.  The goal is not to counsel despair; America is still the greatest country on earth, and as Adam Smith observed, "There is a great deal of ruin in a nation."  The goal is to remind voters of the stakes involved while there's yet time to turn things around.

America has done a great deal of good for many generations of hard-working people.  As a nation we became so well off that people from all over the world wanted to get in on it - that's why it's said that America is a nation of immigrants and why we have so much controversy about the illegal immigrants who jump the queue.

People forget, however, that our economic success was founded on individual liberty.  As we gradually lose our liberties to a growing government, our economy declines.  If it declines far enough, nobody will want to come here any more and we'll lose a whole generation of entrepreneurs - solving the illegal immigration problem, yes, but at a great cost.

With any decline comes many small signs that all is not well.  We need to keep these things in mind to remind us that there are consequences when government involves itself in the economy.

The Roads to Ruin

It is not news that our roads and bridges are decaying.  Back in 2007, USA Today pointed out that many bridges had been declared to be unsafe as far back as 1982.  The bridges were flagged as deficient by government-employed inspectors.  One can wonder why they were flagged since bridges rarely fall down whether they're marked as "deficient" or not; the list was mostly ignored for two decades.

It's one thing to know that work needs to be done, and then to keep putting it off for lack of funds.  It's another thing entirely to openly acknowledge that you're never going to get the money to do it and publicly throw in the towel.  The Wall Street Journal reported that some states are converting formerly paved roads back to gravel because they can't afford to maintain the asphalt that their electoral predecessors were able to install in decades past.

Paved roads, historical emblems of American achievement, are being torn up across rural America and replaced with gravel or other rough surfaces as counties struggle with tight budgets and dwindling state and federal revenue. State money for local roads was cut in many places amid budget shortfalls.  [emphasis added]

Maintaining a gravel road costs about $2,600 per mile as opposed to $75,000 per mile to re-pave it.  In times of economic scarcity, this is a no-brainer for what seem to be lightly-traveled highways, but some officials mourn that they're going "Back to the stone age."

In Michigan, at least 38 of the 83 counties have converted some asphalt roads to gravel in recent years. Last year, South Dakota turned at least 100 miles of asphalt road surfaces to gravel. Counties in Alabama and Pennsylvania have begun downgrading asphalt roads to cheaper chip-and-seal road, also known as "poor man's pavement." Some counties in Ohio are simply letting roads erode to gravel.

Weren't we told that the purpose of the stimulus was to spend money on "shovel ready" infrastructure projects?  The state of Michigan has a governor who's not only a Democrat, she's supported most of Mr. Obama's spending initiatives.  Why didn't Michigan get some of the stimulus money?  Where did it all go?  With Rep. Murtha's death, we no longer have to spend money on his "airport for no one," can't we find some money for Michigan roads?

The Journal put it well - "historical emblems of American achievement."  Back in the day, infrastructure investments led to increased economic activity which increased government revenue, but it's been a long, long time since government spending on new infrastructure showed a societal profit.

Have we truly reached the point where it's time to downgrade our roads because we no longer need them?  Or have we wasted so much money on pork that we can't afford to maintain our infrastructure?

This series will appear intermittently as offbeat signs of decline appear.