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GP20Aug03: Courtly Congressman: Amory Houghton, Jr.
Decline of the Empire. The wicked power outage of 14 August that crippled New York State and rippled throughout the Northeast and Ontario serves, sadly, as a metaphor for the New York economy. It has lost energy. Upstate New York has been suffering for a while, long before the present business slowdown set in, and New York City, media and financial colossus that it is, is eroding as finance, media, and its other industries become more dispersed. New York, and all the states touched by the blackout, need to figure out their future. The Empire State now only ranks 3d amongst its peers population-wise, and that probably defines its place in the power structure of the nation. Florida will soon pass it by.
Infrastructure. A host of planning groups throughout the Eastern United States are trying to grapple with the future of the region. They are generally unfocused and unrealistic, hoping, to plunk knockoff Silicon Valleys or Biotech Corridors down in their own backyards. We suspect the culture of these older states does not equip them to grab a leadership position in either chips or genomes. Any locale should only pick a focus where it can be number one; otherwise, it is doomed to be number seven.
The blackout may give us a hint as to what the East should do. While nobody understands the cause of the electrical breakdown at this writing, we do know that there has been significant underinvestment in power facilities and in the electric grid for decades. In parallel, we discover that all our national infrastructure is generally in trouble, since we are either spending too little on it or we are spending in all the wrong places. Public health, railroads, the computer network and the Internet, education, the military establishment, government—they are all creaky and are not structured for 21st-century tasks. Too many highways are still being built, and too little use is made of railroads, monorail, and the like. Air commuter passengers still go through hub airports, instead of traveling in small planes between the skillions (6,000 or so we think) of more convenient small airfields around the nation. Health dollars are still spent on expensive equipment, doctors, and hospitals, and not on continuous outpatient care and preventive medicine which will vastly improve the nation’s health and plug the hole in its pocketbook. We need all our national grids to become both rugged and relevant.
The deterioration of our several national grids, incidentally, has meant a relative loss of power internationally. The only way to take advantage of our terrific scale and mass as a nation is through smoothly functioning networks. When the networks are down, we are way down. At that point we are severely diminished. All the editorial writers who boldly refer to us as the world’s overwhelming superpower do not seem to understand this.
Could the Northeast make a living in infrastructure? GE of Connecticut has said that it plans to make its future mark in infrastructure industries where it has the scale and technology power to own a commanding position: lately its advertisements have featured its foray into windpower. IBM of New York has grabbed a position in services and, as importantly, in creating a more useful computer network so that we can do away with the complex, breakable, vulnerable software we now have in our home and office. Corning, the glass company up on the Hudson, has converted itself into a fiberoptic provider to the telecommunications industry, and we would expect it to penetrate the broadband world more comprehensively. Is it possible that the Northeast (all the way to Detroit) can rebuild itself by rebuilding the nation?
The Million Dollar Question. Whether it is electricity, or telecommunications, or the computer net, the overarching question is who can provide the leadership to rebuild the nation’s backbone. As we speak, a bad energy bill is stalled in House-Senate conference that would snip away at some of our problems. But much better legislation, in a host of areas, and credible but forceful advocates are required if we are to create the climate for a new architecture. What kinds of individuals do we need?
Regional Development. In our most recent conversation with Congressman Amory Houghton, Jr., who hails from Corning, New York, we find him much pre-occupied with economic revival. Virtually our whole chat focused on the redevelopment of western New York: he is not narrowly focused on a few bandaids for his district, but on how to bring back the whole of upstate New York. He wonders how to deploy the marvelous technological and educational resources there to restore some of New York’s former glory. This is a state that has been at sea ever since Thomas Dewey left office.
We would only urge him to think more broadly—to include in his redemptionist calculations New York City and all the eastern states plus Ontario brought low by this week’s blackout. The whole of the East needs an integrated renewal, and small scale regional planning no longer appears to work.
Sensible Republicanism. Amory Houghton is the former head of Corning Glass, a Fortune 500 company and a telecommunication infrastructure enterprise, to boot. He’s a moderate Republican, and he believes in civility. These are the proper credentials, we think, for nudging New York and surrounding states towards reconstruction. We must look to people out of industry who can speak softly and carry a big sledgehammer to turn things around. He’s one example of the kind of people who can get the job done, and that is why we have chosen to dwell on him in this letter. (Left: Congressman Houghton, pictured with Desmond Tutu, 2003. See houghton.house.gov/default.asp.)
Houghton is generous at every turn. Recently we told him that a wonderful mutual friend had been laid low by the surgeon’s knife. This sparked him to start a flurry of correspondence with her, the interchange bracing to them both. Their mutual concern made their next days just that much easier. He’s the sort of man with whom you want to spend a patch of time.
Civil War. The reason why he’s of particular interest now is that his civility makes him a unifier, not a divider. The acrimony between Republicans and Democrats in Washington, nurtured under Clinton, has reached a fever pitch under Bush. We’re not experiencing normal partisanship along the Potomac: it’s a pitched battle between guerilla politicians who now evince hatred for each other
This is unacceptable. Since 9/11, many of the citizens of Washington are frightened, several with emergency supplies right at their door. They don’t need such partisan rancor in their midst. But, as importantly, the nation doesn’t either. This political warfare produces such gridlock that we cannot get any of the grids in the country properly repaired.
To overhaul our infrastructure, we need politicians who will pay attention to the general interest, understanding the need for a temperate demeanor, for compromise, for long term decisions. Partisans and lobbyists who enrich trial lawyers, natural resource magnates, media barons, and other narrow interests will condemn us to economic decline. We would theorize that the restoration of our infrastructure is dependent on the revival of centrist politics that would apparently be closer to the will of the majority of our citizens in any event.
Moderation Means Caring. The Congressman is known as a moderate Republican, we have said, and that means he looks out for people instead of ideologies. Interestingly, he’s the bipartisan co-sponsor, with Georgia Democrat John Lewis, of the Good Samaritan Tax Act, which tries to set the tax stage for more food contributions to the poor. Senator Lugar has introduced companion legislation in the Senate.
When we visited on the phone a week or so back, we asked him what was the difference between his job now and his former life as a chief executive. He said, of course, that now he has 17 or 20 people to help, instead of 1700. “You simply wind up doing a whole raft of things yourself, because that’s the only way to get it done.” In the process, he noted, you get very close to the struggles and heartaches of your constituents.
We have only just discovered that he chairs a committee dealing with Africa, and he’s been over to visit the countries there, to include a trip with President Clinton that helped focus the world more on this anguished continent. Apparently, we read, he “considered retiring from Corning to become a missionary in Africa in 1986,” but he heeded the call to politics when a seat opened up in his home district. With people hurting in Africa or at home, who has time to bicker?
Conservative Fiscally. He can watch a penny. As near as we can tell, this bent puts him in touch with the wishes of his constituents where even those low on the totem pole worry about waste in government.
We read with interest a letter from one of his constituents written on July 30, 2003. (See http://www.congress.org/congressorg/bio/userletter/?id=437&letter_id=40090631.) A worker at the Corning Hospital (where Houghton was born) who earns $700 a month and spends $100 of this for health coverage complains about the costly treatment of Medicaid patients at the hospital emergency room for trivial complaints. Of the huge number of Medicaid patients this hospital aide signs in to the hospital, “only 5% are actual emergencies.” Can’t this be stopped, the writer asks.
Indeed, expenditures for emergency visits plague the healthcare system. That’s because reasonable, prudent medical attention is not available outside the hospital. It’s estimated that we could take 30% out of healthcare costs if sensible continuous care outside the hospital doors were offered that did not include the huge equipment budgets, high doctor and other labor costs, and the other overheads of institutional environments. Only if we can slice 30% out of government, healthcare, and our criminal justice system will we be able to afford the positive infrastructure improvements that have been so long postponed.
Spit and Polish. When we first met the Congressman ten years or so ago, he had just finished shining his shoes, greeting us with a dapper demeanor and sparkling smile, as we tried to wake up that morning after a long flight the night before. Apparently, he says, he no longer does a spitshine (which he must have learned as a Marine in World War II), but he still greets the day with an energy and cheer that belie the fact that he is in his late seventies. Thank goodness. It’s lonely being a moderate in Washington, and it’s a tough task to minister to a region that’s taking an economic pounding. But, as we used to say, “Leave it to the Marines.” It’s people like him, we think, who might stitch us together again.
Copyright 2004 GlobalProvince.com