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Sunday, October 30, 2011

What We Saw On The Road


In September and October, 2010 and 2011 we traveled the highways and byways of fifteen Western and Mid-Western states.  In total, we drove about 10,000 miles of Interstate highways and the blue roads that represent state and county highways.  We visited lots of cities, towns and villages.

This is a report from the road and it covers four major findings/events/observations/ questions.  This report stresses the things you never see from a seat in Air Force One.

One:  Dwight Eisenhower over saw the building of 45,000 miles of Interstate Highways that have become the crown jewel of the U.S. distribution system.  About 80% of all freight moves along the Interstate highways.  Thousands and thousands of U.S. companies have created highly sophisticated logistics systems that rely on these highways.

My estimate is that about 20% of the Interstate system is in very good, or acceptable condition.  Another 10% is under repair right now.

But something like 70% of the system is in terrible, bone jarring, teeth rattling condition. My estimates are pretty close to those of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

In addition, the blue highways are much worse.  (Kansas excepted.) And cities are incredibly bad.  The streets in Edina, Minnesota and Des Moines, Iowa, just to name two cities, are so bad it is dangerous to walk on them.

Here is the first point.  We will have to repair this road system or become a second world country.  There is no question about that.  NONE!

Here is the second point.  We have 15 million Americans without jobs who could go to work repairing these roads and streets tomorrow.  Construction has been the hardest hit segment of the economy so there are all kinds of people and equipment ready to go to work right now.

Here is the third point.  We will have to pay for these repairs sooner or later.  Robert Reich makes the point that interest rates will never be lower than they are right now.

Here is the fourth point.  Repairing our Interstate system (and bridges, dams and pipe lines) is a no brainer.  It is a win-win-win-win deal.

Win 1; reduce unemployment payments.
Win 2; increase government income from income tax payments.
Win 3; get the economy growing again as newly employed people spend their new incomes.
Win 4; improve the efficiency of our distribution system and reduce businesses costs.

So this raises two questions.  One is why can none of the idiots in Washington understand these simple facts about repairing our infrastructure.  It is not Republicans or Democrats out on those roads; it is Americans, the people who will eventually pay for the repairs.

Question two; Why aren’t the unions screaming out loud to get this repair job going?  Why aren’t the Teamsters, whose members are losing income because of these bad roads, screaming to get the job started?  Why aren’t the members of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association making a big fuss about getting the job started for the same reason?

Two:  Since Obama became President, 400,000 small businesses have gone out of business.  There is an important point here.  When big businesses go out of business by declaring bankruptcy, they leave their creditors with debts that probably won’t be recovered.  When small businesses reach the end of the line, they pay off all their debts and simply close the door.

In larger cities, when a small business goes out of business, a For Lease sign usually shows up in a window, but the vacancy is surrounded by still operating businesses so it doesn’t seem like such a big deal.  But when small businesses go out of business in small towns, the results stick out like a sore thumb.  The restaurant with the large closed sign, the auto dealer with an empty lot and lights turned off, the former service station without pumps now, or the offices with the For Lease signs all along the whole building provide a major reminder that things ain’t goin’ so well here.  The loss of a single business in a small town leaves a major hole.

Three:  In South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska, you drive through vast fields of corn.  The fields reach all the way to the horizon.  And every acre is there because you and I provide a subsidy to the grower.  At the same time, Ethanol plants that turn the corn into a gasoline additive are going broke and out of business.  When ethanol reaches 20%, or so, of the gasoline you buy in those states, your mileage goes DOWN about 20%.  In addition, all the soy bean processing plants built in the fields that used to grow soybeans stand empty and have no employees now.

A helluva deal that the government has given us!!

Four:  Over thirty percent of all Americans are over weight and more than 30% are, in fact, obese.  But in larger cities, like closed small businesses, they don’t seem to stand out as much.  Yes, the check out clerk at Ralph’s a few minutes ago was seriously obese, but nobody else in the store was so over weight.  However, when you travel the highways and byways of the U.S., you encounter a huge number of vastly over weight citizens.  People who can hardly walk.  People who have to sit at a table because they can’t fit in a booth.

I understand that some fat guy is suing a restaurant because he won’t fit in their booths.

What absolutely breaks your heart are the kids and teenagers who are already very over weight because you know their lives are going to be rotten.

When you have dinner at the best restaurant (and it really is good) in Liberal, Kansas, and at the table next to yours, a seriously overweight father, mother and teen age girl are having a huge dinner along with a ten-twelve year old son who is not overweight, you know that kid doesn’t have a chance.

This is not just a matter of esthetics.  Chronic diseases are the number two cost in Medicare expenses, and diabetes is the chronic disease of choice.  And diabetes is a life long medical problem, hence a very long term expense for tax payers.

There is some good news on this front, however.  First, see the McKinsey report I posted awhile back.  Next, some large companies that recognize how over weight employees cost them money, have started incentive programs and are getting some good results.

While this is all good stuff, it is small beer when you consider the size of the problem (no pun intended!)

But we have a serious problem here.  I have found two, long term, well conceived, and well executed research projects that produced diametrically opposite results.

I can find no basis for faulting either study on methodological grounds.

One study found that neighborhood had no effect upon the obesity of the people who live in the study area.  The other study found the exact opposite.  “This research shows how important the environment can be for people’s health, “says the lead researcher of the second study, a professor at the University of Chicago.

One study concluded that it didn’t make any difference whether there was healthy food available, i.e., farmer’s markets, super markets, etc. in the study area.  The other study concluded that moving people away for fast food outlets greatly improved people’s health.

When you look at MacDonald’s menu and read the nutrition stuff (and the same thing goes for other fast food places), you may want to conclude that getting people away from that stuff could actually improve their health.

But the good news is that every fast food restaurant is making some sort of effort to offer more nutritious items.  However, it is taking a very long, long time.  I remember sitting on a curb in Fort Lauderdale, Florida ten years ago (that was another long road trip) trying to eat a Caesar Salad out of a stuffed plastic container, and finally, giving up, and going back for a Big Mac.

So that is the news from the road in the West.

See to get updates and lots of opinions and some actual facts.

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