I went on a rant yesterday about organization and reorganization. I want to continue the theme today about excessive government pork projects. This morning’s news had an article about the millions funneled into West Virginia by the late Senator Byrd with all best intentions. His fondest hope was that these many projects would be the engines to lift the state out of its bottom of the heap economic condition. They didn’t.
It reminded me of several communities I worked with many years ago. In one case a reasonably large city that had fallen on rustbelt hard times was represented by an influential member of congress who was able to direct many building projects into the city center and around the county. They created some high paying but temporary construction jobs, and, when the dust finally settled, what they got were buildings and highways, but the economy was still in the tank.
The attitude of the community leadership was that unless they got federal and state grants for big projects they were doomed to failure. For them, the new highway or building was the future, a future that would somehow resurrect the greatness of years gone by. It was a depressing scene well suited for Faulkner or Williams.
Obviously I’m masking the city’s identity. At least thirty years have passed and reports are that it has begun to prosper again in entirely new directions. A smaller but stable community, it has taken advantage of the projects bequeathed to it by adopting a new attitude. Finally recognizing that their great days of yore are not coming back, they have envisioned a new future for themselves that honors the past without being burdened by it. Healthcare, education and tourism have become important economic engines that are comfortably yoked with heavier industries that still have a place, albeit a mature and smaller place. The millionaires of a century ago are gone. The average family income is modest but solid. It’s a good place to live and a good place to visit.
The lesson, if there is one, is that there is nothing inherently bad or porkish about major federally funded building projects as such. They become pork when they are built just for the sake of building something without a clear vision of how they will be employed for the long term well being of the economic base of the community before they get built. Visions like that cannot be built on dreams of past glory or an unrealistic future of striking the mother lode. They must be built on clear thinking that balances the pragmatism with imagination. Sadly, it appears that did not happen in West Virginia, nor, I suspect, in many other places.
And, lest my conservative friends in the rural district in which I live rush to jump on the usual harrumphing bandwagon, I have just two words to say: Farm Bill.