Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Undeveloping America

We might have the sort of vision that lets us adequately prepare for hurricanes and accurately predict the consequences of policies, but we don't.

Years ago, I lived along the Connecticut River in Vermont. Locals told me that when Hurricane Sandy hit, whole houses luged down the river. I saw buildings in nearby New England towns flanked with stains that told you how high the water had risen. Years before that, my Catholic high school welcomed a small batch of kids from New Orleans into my graduating class. Footage of abandoned Americans standing on their roofs pleading to news helicopters for help played on every television set: Katrina.

Yet last week, nearly ten years after Sandy, I watched clip after clip of the remnants of Hurricane Ida, which made landfall in Louisiana, deluging New York. Water gushed into the subway and shut it down. Buses sat swallowed in rushes of water. Basement apartments flooded, sometimes fatally. As I write this over the Labor Day weekend, hundreds of thousands are still without power in Louisiana. Why weren’t we more prepared?

The left tells us that climate change is to blame. As our planet heats up, catastrophic weather events increase in frequency and hazard to our society. We must prepare for the coming onslaught of demolition nature is sending our way—to the extent that we can. But significant doubt should be cast upon the claims that Ida spawned from global warming. As a recent article from Nature Communications suggests, what appears to be an increase in hurricane activity might only be a return to normal, and more notable with changes in observing practices.

That skepticism of the apocalyptic climate narrative is somehow even worse news, though. It means we could have been ready for this. Tokyo has a beautifully complex flood protection system. Everyone knows the Netherlands has learned to live with water. These are solvable problems and we’re not solving them.

There’s strong evidence to suggest that the Ida floods should have been expected and that NYC’s sewer infrastructure has been so neglected that, as scientist Roger Pielke, Jr. put it, “NYC isn’t ready for the past, much less the future.” In other words, one of the most famous cities in the world—the iconic American city to many—and the seat of our financial system, isn’t built to handle too much rain, despite its history as a landing point for major storms and hurricanes. Such surges aren’t a new feature of life on the bayou either. Fifty-year, or 500-year storms, are things we can in fact anticipate.

No one is taking responsibility for this, naturally. No one in charge of anything in America seems particularly convinced that we live in a nation-state that has basic responsibilities of prosperity, order, and stability. The path here has many bends and twists. The collision of two trends stands out to me. The first is that towards the end of the Cold War a cultural consensus emerged that the social good, because it is contested, is impossible to discern. We live in a pluralistic society with so many factions, groups, opinions, classes—how could we even pretend the social good to be politically realized without squashing whichever group finds itself marginal?

This perspective has some antecedents in Federalist No. 10. But shortcomings become clear when we combine it with the second posture America took: replace politics with the market. As the Fordist/Keynesian order broke apart, some parts landing in China or Mexico, a new market-centric ideology rose to face the day. Why bother with the messy, clunky, cruel working of politics when the unencumbered markets, with their efficiency and emphasis on individual choice, could seemingly realize better results with less coercion? Wouldn’t it be better if everything was more flexible, temporary, liquid? Wouldn’t we all be freer for it?

…Do you hear that giant sucking sound?

The result has been that supposed care for the common good has redounded almost exclusively to the profit of our ruling elite of dead-eyed psychopaths, churned out at our most august institutions of higher learning. Their interest is our default setting. The public things are left to rot. It is hard to take on the tasks of building nuclear plants, hardening our infrastructure, and improving our dams and sewers. The necessary risks are large, the commitments are long, and the projects are difficult. Why would Patrick Batemen or Alcibiades bother?

With a political paradigm that has evaporated basic civic duties in favor of nudging, metrics, and short-termism we’ve become an undeveloping country. “Society,” as Fasteau and Fletcher remind us, “as opposed to any one firm, goes on forever, so it has good reasons to prefer long time horizons.” We fail to take the long view and so we fail to consider posterity. However, to engage in discerning what’s best in the long view, to develop again, requires us to put forth a vision of the social good.

Writer Alex Hochuli describes the process of undevelopment as “Brazilianization.” Its hallmarks are “social relations structured around flexibility, rather than binding contract; a need to find semi-licit workarounds, through hustling”; and a bourgeoisie that has abdicated the role of motor arm of progress. Think about how much servant work the gig economy and exploited migrant labor performs at the behest of our shrinking middle class. We should ask ourselves what we’re interested in conserving here. Certainly not the status quo.

In Jay Cost’s excellent history of Madison and Hamilton’s relationship, The Price of Greatness, he writes that from its inception our country has been negotiating a tension between liberalism, republicanism, and nationalism. It’s clear liberalism reigns supreme over the other two. Each day we lose the basic sense of equality and civic tradition republicanism requires. Ask yourself: What nation lets predictable weather events kill its citizens and shatter its communities time and time again? Not the one we tell ourselves we live in.

Emmet Penney is a writer and the co-host of the ex.haust podcast.