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Why Climate Change Will Make You Love Big Government

Posted on Jan 28, 2012
Sam-Lehman (CC-BY)

Power lines prop up a utility pole after Hurricane Irene passed through Baltimore last August.

By Christian Parenti, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

In the Big Apple at least, when Irene came calling that August, Mayor Bloomberg was ready. He wasn’t dissing or scolding unions.  He wasn’t whining about the cost of running a government.  He embraced planning, the public sector, public workers, and coordinated collective action. His administration took unprecedented steps like shutting down the subway and moving its trains to higher ground. Good thing they did. Several low-lying subway yards flooded.  Had trains been parked there, many millions in public capital might have been lost or damaged.

The Secret History of Free Enterprise in America

When thinking about the forces of nature and the nature of infrastructure, a slightly longer view of history is instructive. And here’s where to start: in the U.S., despite its official pro-market myths, government has always been the main force behind the development of a national infrastructure, and so of the country’s overall economic prosperity.

One can trace the origins of state participation in the economy back to at least the founding of the republic: from Alexander Hamilton’s First Bank of the United States, which refloated the entire post-revolutionary economy when it bought otherwise worthless colonial debts at face value; to Henry Clay’s half-realized program of public investment and planning called the American System; to the New York State-funded Erie Canal, which made the future Big Apple the economic focus of the eastern seaboard; to the railroads, built on government land grants, that took the economy west and tied the nation together; to New Deal programs that helped pulled the country out of the Great Depression and built much of the infrastructure we still use like the Hoover Dam, scores of major bridges, hospitals, schools, and so on; to the government-funded and sponsored interstate highway system launched in the late 1950s; to the similarly funded space race, and beyond.  It’s simple enough: big government investments (and thus big government) has been central to the remarkable economic dynamism of the country.


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Government has created roads, highways, railways, ports, the postal system, inland waterways, universities, and telecommunications systems. Government-funded R&D, as well as the buying patterns of government agencies—(alas!) both often connected to war and war-making plans—have driven innovation in everything from textiles and shipbuilding to telecoms, medicine, and high-tech breakthroughs of all sorts.  Individuals invent technology, but in the United States it is almost always public money that brings the technology to scale, be it in aeronautics, medicine, computers, or agriculture.

Without constant government planning and subsidies, American capitalism simply could not have developed as it did, making ours the world’s largest economy. Yes, the entrepreneurs we are taught to venerate have been key to all this, but dig a little deeper and you soon find that most of their oil was on public lands, their technology nurtured or invented thanks to government-sponsored R&D, or supported by excellent public infrastructure and the possibility of hiring well-educated workers produced by a heavily subsidized higher-education system. Just to cite one recent example, the now-familiar Siri voice-activated command system on the new iPhone is based on—brace yourself—government-developed technology.

And here’s a curious thing: everybody more or less knows all this and yet it is almost never acknowledged. If one were to write the secret history of free enterprise in the United States, one would have to acknowledge that it has always been and remains at least a little bit socialist.  However, it’s not considered proper to discuss government planning in open, realistic, and mature terms, so we fail to talk about what government could—or rather, must—do to help us meet the future of climate change.

Storm Socialism

The onset of ever more extreme and repeated weather events is likely to change how we think about the role of the state.  But attitudes toward the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which stands behind state and local disaster responses, suggest that we’re hardly at that moment yet.  In late 2011, with Americans beleaguered by weather disasters, FEMA came under attack from congressional Republicans, eager to starve it of funds.  One look at FEMA explains why.

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By gerard, January 30, 2012 at 2:56 pm Link to this comment

Seems to me a clear and helpful article. There is always that tug-of-war between “public” and
“private” to deal with, but it’s (IMO) a self-evident fact that we need both. At the same time, we need an ever-changing, always cooperative balance between the two.  Nothing too much, as the Greeks used to say.
  That balance can always be figured out by people with differing viewpoints coming together to reach an agreement satisfactory to all sides - give or take a little here and there—never perfect, but do-able.
  What we dare not lose (and are in grave danger of losing) is the willingness to work things out together, the faith in democratic values and in the ability of agencies to self-correct and change.
  All is not lost yet, if we can exchange real information freely, say what we think, work for what we believe in, and resist authoritarian manipulation.
These are the very issues that are being muddled and endangered by super-managing agencies drunk on their own power and trying to manipulate outcomes. They even propose to dominate Nature!
  Unless they can be brought back to reality, the outcome is doubtful. Balance is vital. Integrity is essential. Blah, blah and blah ... but there it is, as usual, as always.  Buena ventura.

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By LocalHero, January 30, 2012 at 2:16 pm Link to this comment

What baseless, blatant idiocy.

The solution is to turn the problem over to the same corporatocracy that caused the problem in the first place?

Needless to say, there’s no reason to check into Parenti’s TomDispatch any time soon if this is the kind of fuzzy, statist thinking he produces. What dreck.

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By D.R. Zing, January 29, 2012 at 11:10 pm Link to this comment

Hi balkas,

We don’t have a century. 

The UN predicts the population will reach 9 billion by 2050; by 2100
the population is expected to be 10 billion. 

Make no mistake, by that time the leading cause of death everywhere
will be starvation and thirst.

The ecosystem is collapsing. Our children will endure it. Our
grandchildren will probably die from it. It’s very serious. 

We’re fighting a war on terror against our fellow human beings but the
real terror will be the ecological collapse unfolding as we speak. 

Dig peace. Don’t bury it. We’re gonna need it.

D.R. Zing

Source for the UN predictions:

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By D.R. Zing, January 29, 2012 at 10:56 pm Link to this comment

Hi vironmentalman,

Stunning as it seems Monty Python produced a song for

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By D.R. Zing, January 29, 2012 at 10:51 pm Link to this comment

Damn!  This is an awesome article. TruthDig has found
another author of Hedges caliber. 

Here’s a suggestion for public investment: Build
dikes.  Produce productive pumps.  We’ll need them
around Florida, New York, the coast of Texas, etc. 

Sea levels are rising. Put an ice cube on a table. 
The whole thing doesn’t melt before it slides off.
That’s what will happen with Greenland as the planet
warms:  Its icecap will plunk off into the sea. 

If we don’t start investing in climate protection,
well, Tool’s got it right:  “Learn to swim, I’ll see
you down in Arizona Bay.”

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By Morpheus, January 29, 2012 at 9:35 pm Link to this comment

Nothings going to change if we keep talking about it and doing nothing.

Read “Common Sense 3.1” at ( )

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By me1, January 29, 2012 at 7:34 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Yes, the violence of helping people. Don’t you
libertards have anything better to do?

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By dhaab, January 29, 2012 at 5:33 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

BIG government is the answer to our climate change problems? Really? What a horribly flawed article.

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By Matthew Rogers, January 29, 2012 at 3:38 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Although I believe the evidence for anthropogenic global climate change is
strong, this sort of article does nothing but make Alex Jone’s rants about GCC
being a plot to strip us of our freedoms seem sane and plausible.

The only solution to the big corporatism that got us into trouble in the first
place is EXACTLY “voluntary community groups, churches, anarchist affinity
groups,” and other LOCALC solutions for mutual aid that aren’t reliant on large
scale corpratism or statism, that requires a large carbon heavy infrastructure to

Fail and badly so!

This sort of utter failure of imagination by state centralist loving liberals/progs
is the sort of thing that makes me believe that only alliance between the
anarchist left and Libertarian right will save us from the suffocating iron cage of
bureaucracy and corpratism Max Weber tried to warn us about a century ago.

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By balkas, January 29, 2012 at 12:19 pm Link to this comment

for me, it is painful to think about what is coming our way even in next
few decades, let alone in a century or two.

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By Anarcissie, January 28, 2012 at 5:32 pm Link to this comment

As to the title, nothing will make me love violence.

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By vironmentalman, January 28, 2012 at 4:22 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The article is premised on the idea that global warming is happening (but there hasn’t been any since 1998) that man has something to do with it, or to do about it, and that “extreme” weather events (no standards for what qualifies here; the writer sited a hurricane in an unusually quiet hurricane season that fizzled out, but what IF) are related to climate change (climate change which used to be global warming but had to be changed because it stopped warming which was changed from man-made global warming because that was just too much of a stretcher to keep up with a straight face). Slipping the climate change nonsense in as a premise isn’t very subtle but trotting it out as a right/left issue is. Don’t fall for it.

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By Miko, January 28, 2012 at 4:12 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The two largest polluters in the U.S. today are the
Department of Energy and the Department of Defense. 
The largest non-governmental polluters in the U.S. do
so with explicit governmental sanction.  Contrary to
what Parenti assumes, when climate change becomes more
serious, the people responsible (which is to say the
people in charge of those departments) are unlikely to
be hailed as heroes.

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By entropy2, January 28, 2012 at 3:29 pm Link to this comment

Great idea…let’s not empower individuals and communities to nimbly and effectively cope (and even thrive) under rapidly changing conditions. No, let’s have a monolithic, centralized techno-bureaucracy lurching and lumbering from one crisis to another, while, at the same time, causing the next one.

And that’s the best case scenario, assuming that we weed out the crooks, megalomaniacal sociopaths and idiots out an all-powerful state.

Yeah…that’s the ticket.

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By didactic1, January 28, 2012 at 1:49 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Little or no evidence that climate change, as defined by those now alarmed by recent temp increases globally, can be reversed by controls on power and industrial production or switch on massive basis to noncarbon based transit.

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By Night-Gaunt, January 28, 2012 at 1:00 pm Link to this comment

Can’t reach part four, it gives a “can’t find data base” error.

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By Night-Gaunt, January 28, 2012 at 12:58 pm Link to this comment

The costs of the future of climate change will be our freedoms too. As things get worse there are those who would want to institute authoritarian measures an desperate people will gladly have it. That is one of the many dangers we face.

Sooner or later the gov’t as it is starved because of allocation to the war machine will toll here higher an higher. Free Enterprise will close up shop where it costs too much of their bottom line.

FEMA was originally set up as a post war logistical unit. They weren’t designed originally to help anybody in a disaster which is why they had to be altered to do so.

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By Night-Gaunt, January 28, 2012 at 12:47 pm Link to this comment

I can’t reach part 4. It gives me “data base error.”

If we actually lived the way the Free Market Capitalists had their way we wouldn’t be the leader of the world in many things but multiple civil wars between the states-nations an corporations. Such things as democracy would be mostly unknown.

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