Noam Chomsky: America's infrastructure is broken

The linguist and activist on a bevy of topics ranging from the U.S.-Mexican border to the mortgage crisis

Published October 30, 2013 9:45PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Jorge Dan)
(Reuters/Jorge Dan)

This article in its present form originally appeared on Architecture MPS.

AlterNet In order to understand the rationale behind the fortification of the border and the physical form it has taken in recent years, it is necessary to go back a little first. The US-Mexican border, like most borders, was established by violence – and its architecture is the architecture of violence. The US basically invaded Mexico in a pretty brutal war back in the 1840s. The war was described by President-General Ulysses S. Grant, as “the most wicked war in history”. [9*] That may be an exaggeration, but it was a pretty wicked war. It was based on deeply racist ideas. First of all, it started with the annexation of Texas, which was called the re-annexation of Texas on the grounds that it was “really ours all along” […], that they stole it from us, and now we have to re-annex it. That took Texas away from Mexico. The rest of the war, and the later historical period, basically involved additional land grabs.

In order to understand it, you should read the progressive writers like Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others. The position was, as Whitman put it eloquently, that “backward Mexico had to be annexed as part of bringing civilization to the world”—which the US was seen as leading. [10]Emerson said it in more flowery language along the lines of, “it really doesn’t matter by what means Mexico is taken, as it contributes to the mission of ‘civilizing the world’ and, in the long run, it will be forgotten”. [11] Of course, that’s why we have names like San Francisco, San Diego, and Santa Fe all over the southwest and the west of the United States. We should really call it Occupied Mexico.

Like many borders around the world, it is artificially imposed and, like those many other borders imposed by external powers, it bears no relationship to the interests or the concerns of the people of the country—and it has a history of horrible conflict and strife. Take the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example. The British imposed the borderline. They partitioned the overall area nearly in half and arbitrarily divided the land. No Afghan government has ever accepted it, and nor should they. This has happened all across Africa as well, of course, and so the Mexican border is no exception.

After the war of the 1840s the US-Mexican border remained fairly open. Basically the same people lived on the same sides of it, so people would cross to visit relatives or to engage in commerce, or something else. [12]  It was pretty much an open border until the early 1990’s. In 1994, the Clinton administration initiated the program of militarizing the border, and that was extended greatly under George W. Bush in the 2000s—largely under the guise of safety and defence from terrorism.[13]The two key pieces of legislation were called “The Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005” and the “Secure Fence Act of 2006″. [14]  That was interesting, and revealing, because the warnings from the security services were that the dangerous border, with regard the possible incursion of terrorists into the US, was the Canadian border. If you take a look, you can see why. The Canadian border is so porous that you and I can cross it in some forested areas. If you were worried about terrorism, you would fortify the Canadian border. Instead, they fortified the Mexican border where there is no threat of terrorism; it was, clearly, for other reasons. [15]

Clinton’s militarization of the border in 1994 coincided with the passing—I should say the “imposition”—of the executive version of NAFTA, since it was not supported by the public.[16] In fact, the details of NAFTA weren’t even known by the public. [17] The labor movement, which is by law supposed to be consulted on trade-related issues, was barely notified until the last minute; and their recommendations were disregarded along with the recommendations of Congress’ own research bureau. The Office of Technology Assessment called for some form of free trade agreement, but one that was quite differently constructed to the final version of NAFTA.

It was clear that the final version of NAFTA, which is not a free trade agreement at all, would lead to the substantial destruction of small and medium scale American-Mexican agriculture.[18] Mexicancampesinos can be efficient, but they can’t possibly compete with highly subsidized US agricultural business. Mexican businesses were forced to compete on level terms with the US multinationals, which, in addition, had to be given what’s called National Treatment in Mexico.[19] The investment conditions were set up so that US firms would be able to invest in Mexico, exploit cheap labor and the weak labor and environmental constraints there. It was also inevitably and deliberately meant to undermine smaller scale American agricultural businesses and workers, which is exactly what happened.

In general, it was assumed that there would be a flow of people fleeing from Mexico across the border as either a direct, or indirect, result. It had to be militarized and protected. The defense infrastructure that crosses swathes of US land now, was not coincidental. It was tied up with all these issues. We don’t have internal documents from that period, so we can’t know for sure whether the militarization of the border was directly based on the expectation of an increase in economic refugees, but it seems a pretty plausible surmise.[20]

Incidentally, it’s not just to prevent Mexicans fleeing the ravages of US economic policy, but also refugees from other parts of south and Central America forced out of their countries by other policies. In early May this year, one of the dictators of Guatemala, Rios Montt, was given a heavy sentence for his role in the virtual genocide of indigenous Guatemalans living in the highlands—actions that were strongly supported by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Across the United States, generally, there are many people who fled the Guatemalan highlands as a result of the atrocities carried out in the early 1980s. [21] In fact, many live right where I do, near Boston.

Border crossings themselves are the acts of desperate people. You have to go miles through the desert with no water. It’s long treks in the heat during the day and freezing cold at night—and there are armed militias roaming around trying to hunt people down. I know personally a Guatemalan-Mayan woman who crossed the border half a dozen times while pregnant. Finally, she made it on the seventh try. I think she was seven or eight months pregnant and was rescued by solidarity workers who brought her to Boston. There are plenty of other cases like that—terrible cases. Families that are torn apart. Basically, these people don’t want to be here. They want to be back home, but conditions there have been made so awful that they can’t survive.  They are torn from their families, they can’t see their children; they can’t see their grandparents. They live and die apart. It’s a terrible situation. [22]

It’s interesting however, that to some extent recently, there has been a slight opening of the border in the San Diego-Tijuana area to allow for commercial and cultural contact. It does not break the border, but it does bend it a little. My own feeling is that what ought to happen, over most of the world—since these borders are in large measure unofficial and imposed by force—is that a process of the border erosion should be begun; attempts to allow for everyday cultural contact that could, in the longer term, lead to some form of integration. However, at the moment, the built forms you see in the US border states, that militarized architecture developed over years, seems likely to stay for a while. Certainly our understanding of it cannot be divorced from the social and political context surrounding it. It is clearly political architecture—maybe even a symbol[23] —built to send a message to both the Mexican and, importantly, the American public.[24]


Next section: Chomsky on how America's economic model created the suburbs

Graham Cairns: In drawing out this background to the physical infrastructure across the US-Mexican border, Chomsky expands on ideas hinted at in some of his most recent works—principally references found in Making the Future – Occupations, Interventions, Empire and Resistance, 2012 and Occupy, also from 2012. In discussing the question of US suburbanization in the second half of the Twentieth Century, he does something similar—develops isolated thoughts found elsewhere in his writings into more fully fleshed out arguments here. In Powers and Prospects for example, one finds the reference he develops in this interview to suburbia as a “social engineering project”. Similarly, his comments here on the ‘interventionist’ underbelly of successive, supposedly free-market, US governments, echo ideas explained in Understanding Power, Occupy, and a number of other texts.

However, in shifting attention from the clearly ‘oppressive’ architecture of a ‘separation barrier’, to the ‘desirable’ and much sought after ‘suburban dream house’, his thought shifts significantly in register. The politics and issues that underlie this civil, and apparently market led, architecture reveal, for Chomsky, a contradiction at the heart of US rhetoric on free trade. According to Chomsky, US governments have always wanted a very powerful state that intervenes massively in the economy. The key difference to the standard reading of the interventionist state, however, is that in the case of the US, it was intervention for the benefit of the wealthy.[25]

He argues that this interventionist model was, in fact, the one upon which the country was founded. He also suggests that “the U.S. pioneered that model of development” and furthermore, that Alexander Hamilton invented the concept of “infant industry protection and modern protectionism”.[26] Not only is that why, he argues, the US is a rich and powerful country today, it is the reason why the country’s residential infrastructure has developed in the way it has. It is what lies behind the suburban dream.

Chomsky: The social and physical construction of suburban America really was quite complex. It was a very elaborate system, and clearly a massive social engineering project that has changed US society enormously. [27]  Incidentally, I don’t have a personal objection to suburbs, in fact I live in one, but suburbanization is a different question. [28]  It starts back in the 1940s with a literal conspiracy. I mean a conspiracy that went to court. The conspirators got a minor pat on the wrist however.

They were General Motors, Standard Oil of California and, I think, Firestone Rubber. The origins of suburbia reveal an attempt to take over a fairly efficient mass-transportation system in parts of California—the electric railways in Los Angeles and the like—and destroy them so as to shift energy use to fossil fuels and increase consumer demand for rubber, automobiles and trucks and so on. [29] It was a literal conspiracy. It went to court. The courts fined the corporations $5000, or something like that, probably equivalent to the cost of their victory dinner.[30]

But what happened in California started a process that then expanded—and in many ways. It included the interstate highway system. That was presented as part of the defense against the Russians. It was launched under the Interstate Defense Highway Act of 1956, and was intended to facilitate the movement of people and goods, troops and arms, and, allegedly, to prevent overpopulation in specific areas that could become the focus of nuclear attack. [31] The slogan of defense is the standard way of inducing the taxpayer to pay the cost of the next stage of the hi-tech economy of course.[32] That’s true whether it be computers, the Internet or, as in this case, a car-based transportation system.[33]

From the late 1940s, into and through the 50s, there developed a complex interaction between federal government, state and local government, real-estate interests, commercial interests and court decisions, which had the effect of undermining the mass transit system across the country. It was pretty efficient in certain areas. If you go back a century ago for example, it was possible to travel all around New England on electric railways. The first chapter of E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtimedocuments it.[34] Subsequently, we saw the elimination of the mass transport system in favor of fossil fuel use, automobiles, roads and airplanes, which are also an offshoot of federal government.

Today, we have private airline companies, but if you take a look at a Boeing plane next time you travel, you’ll see that you are basically taking a ride on a modified bomber. A lot of the technology, and the research that goes into the development of apparently independently funded and non-government projects in our economy, comes directly from, or has its origins in, federal government. The Reagan Administration, for example, was committed to an enormous increase in state investment through the ‘Pentagon system’—diverting public finance into hi-tech industries and a state-guaranteed market—largely through arms production.  It is essentially public subsidy for private profit—and they call it “free enterprise”. That can only be done by inciting fear in the minds of the public.[35]

The military has, to a large extent, always fulfilled this role of course. It has been used repeatedly as a site for technological innovation. The US is a perfect example.[36] If you revisit the roots of the aviation industry, it’s a clear case. You can read it in Fortune Magazine and other business journals of the time. It was understood in the 1940s that the airline industry—the private airline industry—could not have developed, and today cannot survive, without extensive federal government subsidy. It was stated perfectly openly, and was well understood. It’s the same today. The airports are government built—and so on and so on.

The whole infrastructure of air travel was, and is, part of government policy. It is not a natural development of a free economic system—at least not in the way that is claimed. The same is true of the roads of course. It is simply not true that suburbia is a product of the market, or market forces, or people’s ‘uninfluenced’ desires. It is the result of a deliberate social engineering program—led from the center. It is totally political in that sense. It’s often presented as a product of the market—and in that regard, it’s a standard argument that tries to draw upon the writings of Adam Smith to give it some sort of justification.

But this use of Smith to justify free market economics is just another distortion. Adam Smith would have hated the capitalism we see today. Smith is explicit about it. He was not in favor of free, unbridled, markets. Today he would be called a libertarian socialist.[37] He understood, and stated it clearly in The Wealth of Nations. He argues that England could be “saved” from a form of neoliberal globalization by an “invisible hand”.[38] There needs to be control—or intervention. Daniel Defoe, argued something pretty similar in the eighteenth century.

Defoe identified that British industry wouldn’t be able to survive in the face of ‘genuine’ productive competition from Chin, India, and other Eastern countries. Britain had the highest real wages in the world and, at the time, the best organized working class—at least that’s what much recent research suggests. As Defoe argued, in that context, Britain would have been deindustrialized by the cheap costs of Indian production if protectionist policies hadn’t been employed.[39] From that, you can see how this use of Smith to ‘justify’ the market religion is actually false; and there are numerous other, more recent examples, to underline that.[40]

Thomas Jefferson picked up many of the same themes. [41]  Like Smith, he saw the potential destruction the free market could bring. It was foreseeable. In the case we’re talking about here, the same is true. The devastating effects of exclusively profit focused thinking that the development of suburbia represents were foreseeable—and foreseen. Obviously, the interstate highway program and the destruction of public transport were prerequisites for it, but they served more than just limited interests of oil producers and car manufacturers, although they were central to it. It contributed, and was intended to contribute, to the artificial manufacture of other markets. These attempts to scatter the population into suburban areas across the country led to the emergence of shopping malls, for example. It also led to the breaking down of inner cities and so on. It was also accompanied by “white flight” of course. [42] Additionally, racial segregation was one of the other consequences, at least at first. [43]

That was all part of what we can quite literally call, a massive social engineering project – of a very complex sort.[44] While there are some attractive elements to suburban living, as I said I live in a suburb myself by choice, it has left us with a society, and a physical infrastructure, that is unviable. Just take the Boston area where I live. It takes me forty-five minutes to one hour to drive to work because of traffic jams and detours and so forth. If there was a subway, it would take me ten minutes. But our system is designed so that you don’t have the choice of efficient, humanly beneficial transportation—and Boston is only one example. None of this is ‘natural’ in any way. It didn’t emerge spontaneously—a magical product of the market. It was engineered for a specific range of interests.

Next Section: Chomsky on Mortgage Crisis

Graham Cairns: In contrast to the construction boom that pushed suburban sprawl to even greater extremes in the past two decades, the most recent ‘development’ to really mark the suburban landscape has been quite different—the subprime crisis. Leading to foreclosures on thousands of mortgages, and consequent repossessions and empty properties across the country, it represented the conversion of ‘the dream’ into a nightmare for many.  In exploring the context in which suburbia was once more promoted, and has momentarily declined, Chomsky identifies the culpability of a ‘corrupted’ and ‘blinded’ banking system. However, he is also asked to consider the interconnection of interests that link the Clinton and Bush administrations to the construction sector, and which facilitated the ‘turning of a blind eye’ to the artificial manufacture of demand in the years prior to 2008.

With particular regard the fomenting of demand for houses at an artificially inflated price[45]—through unrealistically accessible mortgages—he is scathing of the banking and economic industries. However, his perspective goes deeper than the immediate actions of recent economists and financial executives. He argues that the logic and principles used to justify the liberalized operations of the market are, in themselves, myths. In returning to his interpretation of Adam Smith, he again suggests that they are principles based on a misunderstanding, or deliberate misinterpretation, of this historical doyen of the ‘free-marketeers’.

Chomsky: The subprime fraud can be seen as the latest stage of the processes we were discussing earlier. I can see that. It also involved an ever more complex and intricate set of interests—the banks, government, the building industry, and real-estate interests once again. Those interests have been at play since the mid-twentieth century with regard the development and exploitation of the land, and the need to house people in the United States. It is true that it wasn’t solely the banking sector—but they are the prime criminals.[46] What they were doing verges, and maybe crosses over, into literal criminal activity. [47]

The chicanery of mortgage selling should be seen as a crime I think. Tricking people into taking mortgages they can’t afford and so on, driving the prices very high—artificially high—why isn’t that considered a crime? Although the banks were the leaders in this, I suppose the economics profession in general deserves a good part of the blame here too. They simply refused to see the huge bubble that was developing. For about a hundred years house prices had pretty much tracked GDP – they sort of reflected the growth of the economy. Then, all of a sudden, they started shooting up. There was no economic basis for it.[48]

It should have been obvious. It was obvious. But the economics profession is caught up in a religion of market efficiency—ideas of rational expectation and so on. That ‘religion’ dictated that what was happening had to be right because the market was doing it. That pseudo-religious belief in the market meant that they simply didn’t see it. Here again, we come back to that distorted reading of Adam Smith. There were a few people who did see it all developing of course—Dean Baker, and a couple of others.[49] However, the profession predominantly, didn’t see it—or refused to see it, maybe. It seemed that they were enraptured by their form of religious fanaticism—but perhaps that is too sympathetic a reading of their motives.

The Federal Reserve Bank releases its transcripts after a five-year period, and the most recent ones released were those of 2007. They’re worth reading. Here are some of the most prestigious economists in the world, bankers and so on, discussing the economy. The economy was about to collapse around them. It was just at the point when the housing bubble was about to burst—when trillions of dollars of fake money was about to be lost with devastating effects for thousands of working families across the country. You read the transcripts, and they didn’t even see it. The grip of the religion was so strong that they couldn’t see what was in front of their eyes. They were programmed to see something else—the effectiveness of the market.

Primarily the responsibility is with the banks but there was federal government support, there was state government support, and a whole range of other interests were in play as well. You’re right in pointing out Clinton, and then again Bush. [50] Both administrations pushed the housing market and, inevitably, contributed to the explosion of urban sprawl that continued to spread across the country. But, if you look at the detail, it was principally a banking crisis. The banks were responsible for the most obvious and literal ‘criminal’ activity, as they were in Ireland and Spain and a number of other places. It verged on criminal behavior, undoubtedly. Incidentally, those responsible are bigger, richer, stronger than before—thanks to government bailouts—which was another scandal. [51]

The effects on the ground were clearly visible throughout that period—growing suburbs, growing sprawl etc. From the 90s and later on, it was perfectly visible in terms of urban, suburban, and rural land developments, but it was also seen in prices. House prices were going through the roof—far higher than anything based on economic essentials would dictate—but there was that blindness, a kind of euphoria. It was evident in the economics profession, the media, politicians, and others, etc. They were all hailing this as an enormous achievement. It was called “the great moderation” and Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve Chair, who was manipulating it all from the top, was hailed as one of the greatest economists of all time.[52] St. Alan he was called. For sure it was visible—but praised. [53]

You can see it on the ground where I live. My wife and I bought our house for $40,000 many years ago. Maybe today that would be $100,000, which is not exorbitant by US standards. It’s the only house on the street that has not either been torn down and replaced by a new, bigger building, or substantially expanded. When they were torn down during that recent period, what went up in their place was a mansion—a building that would that sell for millions of dollars. There was rampant speculation. Homes became an investment, very obviously.

It all added more energy to segregation on the grounds of wealth. The poor are driven out of whole areas when this takes place.  All that was just as visible as new suburbs, towns, sprawl etc. Again, of course, as you indicated earlier, it’s an example of your field, architecture, operating as something integrated into a bigger complex of forces. In this case it’s property speculation and an economic system exploiting laws and people’s aspirations.

All of this was happening when this country faced a tremendous infrastructure collapse, which is still very serious. US infrastructure is in a terrible condition. It’s not just evident on our inner cities, where housing for the poor is still often in bad condition, but on our roads, bridges and so on. Driving to work this morning I got caught up in detours of rebuilding that is, in some ways, essential. At least it is essential to the continuation of the current inefficient and failing transport model. It is necessary to reconsider the infrastructure of this country—the way it is set up and financed. It’s not really a question of architecture in the first instance; it is a question of politics and economics of course.

By Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor (retired) at MIT. He is the author of numerous books including "Profit over People," "Manufacturing Consent " and most recently "Who Rules the World?", available now.

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By Graham Cairns

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