‘The Era of Angry Populism has only just begun’

Robert Reich — author, professor and former U.S. secretary of labor — describes the mood of the American populace tonight, shortly before the U.S. Senate vote on the so-called financial bailout bill. His conclusion: “angry populism is about to explode.”

This mood will last longer than one night or one week; it will carry over into the November elections and well into the first year of the next White House administration.

Excerpts from Reich’s blog post:

While more Americans are coming around to “supporting” the bailout bill, the vast majority still hate the idea of bailing out Wall Street. They’re for the bailout bill now only because they fear that a failure to pass it will have worse consequences — drying up credit at a time when Main Street is struggling. But make no mistake: America is mad as hell. They resent what they perceive as extortion by the Masters of the Universe.

Angry populism has always been a potent force in American politics. And now, with wages dropping, jobs insecure, fuel and food and health-insurance costs soaring, and millions of homes in jeopardy — and what’s perceived to be a massive taxpayer bailout of some of the richest people in the land — angry populism is about to explode.

The larger economic outlook is not encouraging. All signs point to the economy worsening, bailout or no bailout. Unemployment will continue to rise. Median earnings will continue to drop, adjusted for inflation. More Americans will lose their health insurance.

The Era of Angry Populism has only just begun.

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Related:
The resurgence of anti-business populism; more regulation ahead

Peripheral vision

Five developments that caught my eye:

Time for a national infrastructure bank?

Douglas Rediker and Heidi Crebo-Rediker at the New America Foundation have released a policy paper suggesting a novel way to fund improvements in America’s crumbling infrastructure. They recommend two financing initiatives (beyond direct government grants):

[W]hile we have enormous infrastructure financing needs, there are also enormous pools of capital available for investment. The trick is to bring the two together in a commercial, sustainable, and politically acceptable way.

First, we suggest the enactment of legislation and the development of regulations to facilitate the origination and issuance of public sector covered bonds in the United States, which will provide a market-based, efficient, and secure mechanism to attract capital for infrastructure investment.

Second, along the lines of a proposal by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) last year, we recommend that the federal government consider the creation of a new, government-owned and -capitalized infrastructure financing entity — a National Infrastructure Finance Enterprise — that would pool, package, and sell existing and future public infrastructure securities in the capital markets. The proposed entity would also seek to develop an in-house capability to originate infrastructure loans and would be able to fund itself through the international capital markets. We believe that the entity should be capitalized at a far higher level than proposed in the DeLauro bill. Further, its scope should extend beyond that of the National Infrastructure Bank as currently proposed by Senators Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE).

The need for much greater investment in U.S. infrastructure should be obvious. But if you’re new to this issue, here’s the intro:

America’s basic infrastructure is outdated, worn, and in some cases, failing. Most experts agree that it is inadequate for meeting the demands of the 21st-century global economy. If we are to remain competitive, we must invest in capital assets like roads, ports, bridges, mass transit, water systems, and broadband infrastructure. Many other countries — both rich and poor — see investing in infrastructure as imperative for economic survival and success in an increasingly competitive economic environment. But the United States has lagged in infrastructure investment, in both relative and absolute terms. We are spending less than 2 percent of GDP on infrastructure, while China and India are spending 9 percent and 5 percent of GDP, respectively.

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Related: Rebuilding and Renewing America: Toward a 21st Century Infrastructure Investment Plan (Wilson Center event summary)

Update: (23 February 2009) NYTimes.com Op-Ed columnist Bob Herbert on the need for a U.S. infrastructure bank: http://idek.net/3RJ (via @michaelgoldberg)

Top five political issues in the U.S., 2008

Top five political issues in the U.S. ( May 2008 )

Issues cited as “very important”

  • Economy (88%)
  • Education (78%)
  • Health care (78%)
  • Jobs (78%)
  • Energy (77%)

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Source: Pew Research Center telephone poll of 1,505 adults, conducted May 21-25; multiple responses allowed. The margin of error is +/- 3 percentage points. Reported in The Wall Street Journal 9 June 2008.

Note: A similar poll last year had Iraq as the top issue.

Railroads make eco-friendly comeback

Is the horse-drawn carriage next? It’s 2008 and the once-dying freight railway industry is “enjoying its biggest building boom in nearly a quarter century, a turnaround as abrupt as it is ambitious,” gushes The Washington Post ( 21 April 2008 ). The boom is “largely fueled by growing global trade and rising fuel costs for 18-wheelers,” the article says. However, with the boom comes a concern about a return to the robber barons (and anti-competitive pricing) of the 1800s. Excerpts:

In 2002, the major railroads laid off 4,700 workers; in 2006, they hired more than 5,000. Profit has doubled industry-wide since 2003, and stock prices have soared.

This year alone, the railroads will spend nearly $10 billion to add track, build switchyards and terminals, and open tunnels to handle the coming flood of traffic. Freight rail tonnage will rise nearly 90 percent by 2035, according to the Transportation Department. [Actually: 88%.]

[T]he changing global market has fueled prosperity — and the need to add track for the first time in 80 years. Soaring diesel prices and a driver shortage have pushed freight from 18-wheelers back onto the rails. At the same time, China’s unquenchable appetite for coal and the escalating U.S. demand for Chinese goods, means more U.S. rail traffic is heading to ports in the Northwest, on its way to and from the Far East.

The zeitgeist has even dropped a “green” gift in the industry’s lap. A train can haul a ton of freight 423 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel, about a 3-to-1 fuel efficiency advantage over 18-wheelers, and the railroad industry is increasingly touting itself as an eco-friendly alternative.

But rail customers are complaining about the kind of price-gouging not seen since the robber barons of the 1800s, leading to antitrust suits and calls for re-regulation of rail prices. The rail industry counters that it’s using the same kind of “differential pricing” that airlines use today (i.e., higher prices where they have market power).

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Related:
Railroad news: Shippers say lack of antitrust enforcement hindering rail competition