There is an absurd Alice in Wonderland feel to the current economic crisis.
Public transportation use is at the highest level in decades. Buses and trains are overflowing, even after the steep fall of gasoline prices since last summer. Voters last November approved billions of dollars for new transit project across the country.
This is all wonderful news for anyone who cares about curbing the global climate crisis, cleaning up the environment and revitalizing our communities.
But, unfortunately, transit systems all over the country are cutting back service and raising fares.
The New York Times reports that Denver is considering axing one of its light rail lines and several bus routes. St. Louis is planning to cut bus service in half. Even New York, a city where less than half the residents own cars, is looking at eliminating two subway lines and 24 bus routes as well as a whopping 23 percent fare increase.
How can this be happening at a time when public transportation is more popular than ever? When it is proving to be a practical solution to pressing economic, ecological and energy problems?
It’s the same story with public libraries.
“Libraries are now bursting at the seams with money-pinched families seeking free entertainment, jobless adults looking for work, and cash-strapped consumers who’ve dropped home internet services and stopped buying books,” reports the Minneapolis Star Tribune .
The newspaper reports that circulation figures at Minneapolis’ public libraries jumped 37 percent from 2000 to 2008. But that did not prevent three of the city’s libraries from being closed for several years due to budget woes. They were recently reopened when the city library systems merged with the county system, which saw a 23 percent rise in circulation during the same period. But now new financial difficulties loom.
And people aren’t coming the libraries just for books. In Ramsey County, home to St. Paul, computer use was up 38 percent last year. Use of the libraries free wireless network climbed 61 percent and attendance at computer classes rose 24 percent.
Libraries are also important as public spaces where people can simply hang out. Dave Hintermeister, a suburban dad who takes his young daughters to the library every other week, told the Star Tribune, “It’s fun to spend an hour here with the kids and not have to spend much money.”
Yet even though they are more popular than ever, libraries in Minnesota and around the country are facing dramatic budget cuts.
Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, one of the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, proposes closing the state’s budget gap by reducing corporate taxes and slashing state aid to local governments. This will mean painful cuts in public assets, such as transit and libraries.
In preparation, all city departments in St. Paul—including libraries—are bracing for a 14 percent cut in funding. That will likely mean closing one library and cutting back hours at 11 of the remaining 12.
This loss of our public assets is an alarming threat to our society. The things we all own in common and depend upon—libraries, transit, parks, water systems, schools, public safety, infrastructure, cultural programs, social services—are being gradually but steadily undermined.
Even though the privatization of public resources has lost favor with the American public—as witnessed by the complete failure of George W. Bush’s dream of privatizing social security and the rout of free market Republicans in the last two national elections—the idea is still being carried out through the back door. (Hopes for “stealth privatization” explain why congressional Republicans opposed giving aid in the new stimulus package to states coping with budget shortfalls; but many Republican governors supported Obama on this one.)
The economic crisis caused by rampant deregulation in financial markets is being used as an excuse to further chip away at public services, institutions and assets. That inevitably means more privatization and further erosion of essential commons-based institutions.
It’s ridiculous that in a time when so many families and communities are struggling economically we would even think about trimming important services that are available for everyone one to use—and which people are now using in unprecedented numbers.
As Alice would say, things are curioser and curioser.