Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The decline and fall of America (a continuing series)

At some point, Rome no longer could maintain its roads and aqueducts, due in part to a declining tax base and the decay of central authority. Fast forward:
Paved roads, historical emblems of American achievement, are being torn up across rural America and replaced with gravel or other rough surfaces as counties struggle with tight budgets and dwindling state and federal revenue. State money for local roads was cut in many places amid budget shortfalls.

In Michigan, at least 38 of the 83 counties have converted some asphalt roads to gravel in recent years. Last year, South Dakota turned at least 100 miles of asphalt road surfaces to gravel. Counties in Alabama and Pennsylvania have begun downgrading asphalt roads to cheaper chip-and-seal road, also known as "poor man's pavement." Some counties in Ohio are simply letting roads erode to gravel.

The moves have angered some residents because of the choking dust and windshield-cracking stones that gravel roads can kick up, not to mention the jarring "washboard" effect of driving on rutted gravel.

But higher taxes for road maintenance are equally unpopular. In June, Stutsman County residents rejected a measure that would have generated more money for roads by increasing property and sales taxes.

"I'd rather my kids drive on a gravel road than stick them with a big tax bill," said Bob Baumann, as he sipped a bottle of Coors Light at the Sportsman's Bar Café and Gas in Spiritwood. * * *

Judy Graves of Ypsilanti, N.D., voted against the measure to raise taxes for roads. But she says she and others nonetheless wrote to Gov. John Hoeven and asked him to stop Old 10 from being ground up because it still carries traffic to a Cargill Inc. malting plant. She says the county has mismanaged its finances and badly neglected roads.
Barbarians, Tea Partiers, whatever. (H/t LGM.)


  1. In my archaeology course, I use the decline of the Roman road system as an example of how cultural evolution is not a unilinear process. The collapse of the road system was also a factor in the movement from horse-powered transportation to camels in many portions of North Africa.

  2. What did you think of Bryan Ward-Perkins' little book on The Fall of Rome? IIRC he relied pretty heavily on archaeological evidence for a "fall" (as opposed to a "differently governed" ex-Roman Europe).

  3. I certainly don't know all the facts on this, but in many states there has been a movement of people from rural areas to villages and cities. It used to be very common in places like Michigan for people to farm 80 acres, but of course those days are long gone. Some states have a road grid so that each section of land is surrounded by a road; that is, there is a straight road every mile. This made sense when there were lots of farmers and people living on the land, but not as much today. Add to this the increase in oil prices (asphalt) and converting the roads to gravel may just be prudent management, not a sign of societal decay.

  4. Anderson, I'm an Andeanist, so I haven't seen the book, but I'll put it in my wish list. Conventional wisdom says there was no "fall," as you know, so it would be very interesting to read a work that examined contrary evidence. At the very least, it will jazz up my presentations of the Romans...:)

  5. As for prudent management vs. social decay, I understand the argument. A lot of the old roads that were in the fields around my hometown have now gone to gravel--perhaps as a result of factory farming buying out the little guys. On the other hand, it is precisely that prudent, conservative behavior that marks the decline of many civilizations; periods of decline are noted by the lack of maintenance of infrastructure, the lack of artwork, and the lack of new construction, especially great monuments or other architectural achievements. Add some kind of climatic hiccup, and it's almost one-size fits all. Part of that is because we define ancient civilizations by their ruins and not their thoughts; once acceptably "Roman" roads have disappeared, surely it's collapse, even if many aspects of the culture live on.

  6. periods of decline are noted by the lack of maintenance of infrastructure

    To which anyone familiar with our interstate system can attest. Bridges and levees collapse because maintenance is unsexy and taxes are downright unattractive.

    The lack of will to tax at levels needed for social goods is a serious problem. (The Romans had the will but not the ability, as barbarians pared off territory and with it tax base.)

    -- It's a short read, PMS, and is definitely in the teeth of the CW. When you get the yen to recommend what the General Reader should know about Andean culture, don't be shy about sharing it!