Infrastructure

From James Surowiecki at The New Yorker

Infrastructure was once at the heart of American public policy. Works such as the Los Angeles Aqueduct, Hoover Dam, and the Interstate Highway System transformed the economy. Today, we spend significantly less, as a share of G.D.P., on infrastructure than we did fifty years ago—less, even, than fifteen years ago. As the economist Larry Summers has pointed out, once you adjust for depreciation, the U.S. makes no net investment in public infrastructure. Yet polls show that infrastructure spending is popular with a majority of voters across the income spectrum. Historically, it enjoyed bipartisan support from politicians, too. If it’s so popular, why doesn’t it happen?

The answer (surprise) is politics, significantly, though not exclusively, of the conservative anti-government variety. But Surowiecki also points out that there have been veto points added in to the process for environmental protection and community empowerment goals. This is historically important, because, as numerous works in urban history point out, large-scale infrastructure projects have often been carried out in profoundly undemocratic and environmentally cavalier ways.

Perhaps more than reviving a tradition of infrastructure spending, we need to cultivate practices of democratic infrastructure development. So, while I’m in general agreement that, since bridge collapse or lead poisoning now threaten me more than ISIS does,

The U.S. needs to approach infrastructure the way it does national defense: come up with a long-term strategy, make sure it gets the money it needs, and hold the government accountable for making that strategy work. Infrastructure is the ultimate public good. It would be nice if ours was actually good for the public,

I don’t know if national defense is the best metaphor.

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