Who remembers the Great Society? After his landslide election in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson put all the nation’s wealth to work to create “a society of success without squalor.” His administration spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build schools, so that every child would have a decent education; to build low-income housing, so the poor no longer had to live in slums; to protect wilderness, so city dwellers would have a place for recreation.
It was Johnson’s philosophy that government should do for the people what they cannot afford to do for themselves. Conservatives have spent the last half century attacking Johnson’s brand of liberalism, as a violation of free market principles. As a result, we’ve arrived at a new civic philosophy: government should not do anything that private business can do, and make a profit from.
The aldermen who passed Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Infrastructure Trust acknowledged that during the debate this morning. Government is broke, they said, from Washington to Springfield to City Hall. If we want to repair our transit system, build fire stations or pave our streets, we’re going to have to contract the job out to a private business.
Ald. Joe Moore cited the $4 billion price tag for modernizing the Red and Purple, and the $1.4 billion it will cost to extend the Red Line to 130th Street.
“Where will the money come from?” Moore asked. “The Feds once subsidized mass transit, but that money is hard to come by.”
Neither can the city still issue bonds, Moore said: “It has become increasingly difficult for the city to rely on this source of funding. Why is that? Our city is drowning is debt.”
This was one of the goals of the conservative movement: starve the government, so its functions would have to be assumed by a for-profit enterprise. Instead of business funding the government, the government now funds business. Toni Foulkes, one of the six aldermen to vote against the trust, knows what the game is.
“Nobody expends money without a return,” Foulkes said. “And they expect a big return.”
Ald. Leslie Hairston, another opponent, pointed out, “The money in the Trust is not free. It is borrowed. It must be repaid with interest. That interest will come from user fees and taxes. These are the things we’re trying to avoid burdening them with, but we’re going to saddle them with more.”
But don’t blame the aldermen who voted in favor of the Trust. There’s nowhere left to look for money. They’re doing just what free-market conservatives have always wanted them to do, but they’re doing it because they have no choice.
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