In my conversations with people in Texas, it seemed that the privatized nature of the road was what got folks the angriest. Bad enough that drivers would face tolls, that ranchers would have their land cut out from under them, but all for the financial gain of a foreign company?......
"What really drives this is economic," activist Terri Hall told me. "It's about the money. We're talking about obscene levels of profit, someone literally being like the robber barons of old. And this is one thing that government actually does well, build and maintain roads."
Hall is an unlikely defender of the public sphere. A conservative Republican and an evangelical Christian who home-schools her six children, she first got interested in road policy when TxDot announced plans to toll the road near her house, which runs into San Antonio. Outraged, she brought it up with her local State Rep, and when that didn't work, she began organizing. She founded the San Antonio Toll Party (like the Boston Tea Party, she notes) by pamphleting at intersections and calling friends. "It's really like the old days, during the American Revolution...just fellow citizens trying together to effect change."
.....Hall had arranged to meet me in the San Antonio exurbs, in a home design center that doubled as a cafe. Outside, a thunderstorm lashed the windows with rain. As she spoke, her newborn son propped next to her swaddled and napping, it occurred to me that she was living the twenty-first-century version of the American dream. She and her husband had moved to Texas from California in pursuit of cheap housing, open space and a place to raise their family. Their web-design business was successful; their children healthy. Why, I found myself thinking, was she so upset about a road?
[Texas Transportation commissioner] Ric Williamson must often ask himself the same thing. Just as the White House was blindsided by the opposition to the Dubai ports deal, just as NASCO was shocked to find that a simple schematic map attracted angry phone calls, just as the Commerce Department was shocked to find a simple bureaucratic dialogue the subject of outrage, so too have Perry and Williamson seemed ambushed by the zealous opposition of people like Hall.
But what people like Williamson don't seem to understand is how disempowered people feel in the face of a neoliberal order whose direction they cannot influence. For corporatists within both parties (Williamson, it should be noted, was a Democrat while in the Statehouse), selling port security or road concessions to a multinational is inevitable, logical, obvious. To thousands of average citizens in Texas and elsewhere, it's madness or, worse, treason. Both the actual TTC and the mythical NAFTA Superhighway represent a certain kind of future for America, one in which the crony capitalism of oil-rich Texas expands to fill every last crevice of the public sector's role, eclipsing the relevance of the national government as both the provider of public goods and the unified embodiment of a sovereign people.
For Williamson, this is progress; for Hall, it's an outrage and a tragedy. "We have so little control over our own government," she told me, the alienation audible in her voice, thunder punishing the air outside. "We are really the last beacon of freedom in the world--the land of the free and home of the brave--and we're letting it slip away from under our noses."
That's the Upshot of both the left and the right, whether it is the World Trade Organization or Cintra, unelected entities are being handed control by Federal and State governments unable or unwilling to do their historic jobs. Citizens expect to have a voice at the ballot box on trade policy, the building and administration of roads, and all of the other things governments do. The Democrats with their slavish devotion to multinational political organizations and neoliberal trade polices and the Republicans with their devotion to multinational corporations and privatization both are choosing to hand over more and more control to these entities, and neither sees a problem.
The job market that has gotten much nastier and much harder to predict. Service sector jobs that may have seemed safe from trade are becoming tradable. Thousands of corporate jobs disappear overnight when financial engineering runs awry. Health insurance is getting stingier and retirement is a source of anxiety, not comfort. You can work hard and a decision half a world away by someone who you've never laid eyes on can take away your benefits or send you out on the street.
Is it any wonder folks are yelling "whoa!"?