A visit here in the fall of 1982 is highly recommended. The beauty of the place and the warmth of its people are refreshing. Perhaps because Kentuckians can remember past sadness, the future is not dreaded here. Optimism is a survivor in this state, areas of which only 50 years ago were as poor as today's Third World.
That was when the people of the Tennessee River Valley had a per capita income only 45 percent of the then-depressed national average, when just 3 percent of the homes had electric lights, and when each spring came with its very own flood. Of course, some Washington social engineers came up with a federal program that the Democrats passed. Unrealistic expectations preceded the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Like all human creations, TVA has been consistently fallible, sometimes arrogantly so. But the achievements in its first 40 years were something: a ten-fold increase in per capita income; electricity lighting 98 percent of the homes; 3 million acres saved from erosion. No more is the spring flood a disheartening perennial. The private sector might have done the job more economically and more efficiently. But the private sector didn't. It was the federal government, which the present administration tells us is the principal source of all our woes, that did all those things.
Earlier, the federal government had made the Louisiana Purchase, which made possible America's greatness. The railroads that span the continent were subsidized by the same government that opened its land to homesteaders. Today a large share of any balance in our nation's balance of payments comes from two American industries -- agriculture and airplanes -- that the federal government has subsidized. Government research and programs made possible the recent private rocket launch in Texas, which may make the rocket-launchers into millionaires who can then persuade themselves that the government is the enemy.
If it were to be proposed in 1982, who would support the TVA? Maybe a handful of labor-liberal House members, but there would be formidable opposition. First, there would be a generation of lawsuits over the proposed dislocation of the unfuzzy caterpillars, and allied birds and bunny matters. These opponents would be joined by that swelling group of pervasively pessimistic public officials who sincerely believe that nothing, at least nothing non-Japanese, works. Theirs is the "can't do" attitude.
Then there are the consistent conservatives, who, like their predecessors in 1933, would oppose government entry into competition with the private sector. The New Realists would reluctantly have to do the same. These are the mostly Democratic officials who are relentlessly "liberal" on all social questions but very "conservative" fiscally. On the burning issue of child custody rights of single homosexual parents, these legislators are solid. But where money is involved, sorry. In 1982, TVA would not get out of subcommittee.
Someone has said that the real national debate of the 80s will be over the proper role of government in our society. Right now, with the exception of sending Social Security checks, a lot of people seem unable to find any proper role for government.