Americans have always worried about the crushing cost of infrastructure, and Americans have always been wrong. I don’t say this from some snooty perch of knowingness: I personally have always worried about the cost of infrastructure, and I personally have always been wrong.
When I lived in England, I scoffed at plans to dig a tunnel under the English Channel. Wrong. The project has been a success on both sides of the Chunnel.
You get the idea. I’ve learned from experience what DeWitt Clinton, who later became governor of New York, knew as far back as 1810, when he began years of labor on a project widely derided as “Clinton’s Folly,” that eventually became known as the Erie Canal. Infrastructure is the connective tissue for human cooperation and communication. Bridges, roads, seaports, airports, railways, waterways, power lines, broadband — they all end up paying for themselves many times over because they leverage the greatest economic resource on earth: people.
Of course, some projects are better than others: more efficient, more effective, more fair. Wise communities will seek the best bang for their infrastructure bucks. But they will raise those bucks and they will spend those bucks because — with apologies to Bob Dylan — networks that aren’t busy being born are busy dying.
The Biden administration’s infrastructure proposal arrives when the United States is on the cusp. On one hand, leaders of most persuasions agree that our 19th and 20th century infrastructure needs a 21st century update. Our power grid in California can’t survive heat; the one in Texas can’t survive cold. We have our own version of the blocked Suez Canal at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where container ships are backed up for weeks because there is not enough capacity to unload them. The average freight train passing through Chicago needs more than a day and a half to get from one side of the city to the other. Children in urban and rural areas alike are limited in their learning opportunities by slow or nonexistent wireless Internet. Truckers sleep on road shoulders and in grocery parking lots because safe rest stops are overcrowded. Computer systems require constant security upgrades against cyberwarriors and criminal hackers.
On the other hand, nothing endangers a politician today like looking too agreeable. So the same Republican leaders who promised a trillion-dollar-plus infrastructure package during the Trump administration are now promising to fight Biden from every hedgerow and hillock. Just as the Democrats did when the shoe was on the other foot, the Republicans are complaining not so much about the need for new investments, but about the proposed funding mechanisms.
This is where my hard-won life lesson comes in. Keeping our infrastructure up to date is critical to our economic future, which means that we’ll all benefit by doing it — no matter how we pay for it. Sure, there will be short-term winners or losers if the corporate tax goes up instead of the gasoline tax, say, or if the money is borrowed to take advantage of low interest rates at the risk of feeding inflationary pressures. But these are relative winners and losers, because infrastructure investment truly is the rising tide that lifts all boats. However, if we don’t make the investments, everyone loses; we stop being a nation on the rise and become a nation in decline.
Another point of broad agreement in our divided politics is pertinent. Leaders in both parties generally understand that in the 21st century, the United States is competing for influence with a strong, and increasingly confident, China. Despite looming demographic problems, China believes in its future; its heavy investments in infrastructure are the proof.
If the United States fails to make its own infrastructure commitments, the world is likely to draw certain conclusions about our appetite and readiness for competition. Other nations will warm to China regardless of its surveillance culture and oppression of minorities simply because each nation’s internal interests require a due respect for the strong horse.
The United States has, unquestionably, the human resources to thrive in the coming years; we are a creative, questing, energetic, innovative, restless, imaginative society. We must keep the physical and digital networks that connect us to one another and to the world up to date and in good working order. That was true when former president Trump talked about infrastructure and it is true today; how we get it done matters far less than simply getting it done.
We worry about the cost. We always have, and always will. Then we pay it, and we’re always glad that we did.
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