Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Deals, Defaults, Double Dip

The United States, with its sagging transportation infrastructure and partially shuttered Federal Aviation Administration, took an accelerated path toward Third World status with the debt-reduction deal passed today by the U.S. Congress and approved by President Barack Obama.

The deal avoids a once-unthinkable U.S. Government default by just 12 hours. As always, the devil is in the details. Travel and tourism is just one piece of an enormously complicated agreement.

However, in reviewing media accounts of the intensely partisan, emotionally charged deal, travelers cannot be reassured. There is no money for upgrades of transport infrastructure that has seriously declined in efficiency and safety over the past 20 years, no assured money for research into change Obama claimed we can believe in such as high-speed rail, and no progress in sight on the long-promised, often-delayed GPS-based next generation of air traffic control to replace the outdated radar-based system we have now.

To add insult to injury - actually, injury to injury - members of Congress are leaving Washington, D.C. today and tomorrow for their all-important summer break, leaving the FAA to limp along with inadequate funding until Labor Day. This is the essential agency that oversees one of the planet's most complex aviation systems. Air traffic controllers are still on the job, but another 4,000 FAA employees have been furloughed since July 23, while 70,000 construction workers have since been laid off during a period of high unemployment because there is no money to pay for airport expansion and upgrades.

Speaking of those fun-loving, sleepy-eyed scamps, the air traffic controllers, Bloomberg Business Week has a dismaying story in its August 1-August 7 issue showing that of 140 controllers the FAA attempted to fire for a variety of reasons only 82 were actually forced to leave. Well, just so they're not inconvenienced.

America's political gridlock and money woes hurt more than public confidence and comfort - they cost money. According to a story by Washington Post reporter Ashley Halsey III in the July 27 Post (www.washingtonpost.com),
delaying repair of infrastructure such as bridges, roads, railroads and airports costs the U.S. $129 billion a year in added operational costs and travel delays. The story cites a recent study conducted for the American Society of Civil Engineers.

This cascade of bad news has slowed U.S. economic growth to an anemic 1.3 percent in the second quarter of 2011, following barely visible 0.4 percent growth in the first quarter. The three major credit rating agencies are still talking about downgrading the nation's sterling AAA rating. Additionally, U.S. consumer spending fell 0.2 percent in June, the latest month for which statistics are available. Add on the coming effects of reduced federal spending and employment, and the world's largest economy could tumble into a double-dip recession, imperiling not only the United States but the rest of the world.

When will America straighten up and fly right? Not anytime soon, evidently.

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