Posted by: Matt | January 25, 2010

Infrastructure and the Lack of Political Courage and Vision

I’ve come across some interesting quotes in a couple articles recently regarding infrastructure and the difficulty our nation is having with it these days. They stuck out because they articulated the frustration I’m currently experiencing with our government. An article in Fast Company on Santiago Calatrava contained a couple of quotes about infrastructure and government in this country.

First we hear Tom Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota College of Design, say, “the current idea that government involvement is evil is completely debilitating in the global economy. You need infrastructure to compete. We’re acting like a third world country, while other places like Europe and China are investing.” The article goes on to say that the United States only spends 2.4% of GDP on infrastructure, compared to 5% in Europe and 9% in China. Interesting numbers.

Next is a quote from Reed Kroloff, director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, stating that,

We built the Hoover Dam when we were flat-ass broke in the middle of the Depression, and completed the D.C. subway system when Jimmy Carter was president and there were gas lines around the corner. What we do now is the cheapest, fastest solution to every problem, not thinking you can be both expedient and expressive. It’s terrible, sad, and inexcusably meek and meager. It’s appalling to me that Americans have come to accept the suburban strip mall as our national architecture.

This thought is echoed by Nancy Levinson, writing in Places, where she opines that

The New Deal was a big-scale, legacy-building, vision-to-burn public sector response to national crisis. But in 2010, unlike in the ’30s, we confront our crisis in a social-political climate that’s to a large degree contemptuous of public sector solutions, and more, hostile to the very idea of the public.

Two themes jump out from these quotes. First, our government and politicians are dangerously short-sighted when it comes to envisioning the infrastructure that is required to sustain America in the 21st Century. Second, many citizens still see government as the problem and not the solution (a notion we’ve been saddled with since the Reagan presidency).

We’ve seen talk from politicians, but have little in the way of results to show for it. We did hear some vision and the rhetoric of determination from President Obama in his State of the Union address Wednesday night. Given the structure of our government and the separation of powers, however, there is only so much the President can do. To accomplish anything of real significance, Congress must get past its general spinelessness and also get on board. That said, even Obama could be more supportive than he has been. Our transportation system is drastically underfunded, yet Obama has shied away from a gas tax increase or implementing a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax to shore up the transport bank account. Still, if Obama actually did support something like this, I would have serious doubts about it getting through a dysfunctional and sometimes hostile Congress.

Of all things, though, Obama actually proposed a spending freeze for non-defense discretionary spending over the next three years. Now, I realize we’ve run up an enormous deficit that has many folks, myself included, worried about the long-term repercussions of paying back all that money. But we also have a failing infrastructure in this nation that will not go away without some federal largesse. Surely a nation as wealthy and smart as ours can come up with ways to fund water, transportation, sewage, energy and other improvements that are sorely needed.  Maybe it’s a gas tax increase or a VMT tax or a National Infrastructure Bank or something else entirely. Whatever it is, I don’t like the idea of freezing our spending on infrastructure at such a crucial time (to be fair, the stimulus bill and potential jobs bills are providing some cash, but these are only temporary and fall far short of long-term solutions).

Maybe the solution is Joe Klein’s take on what should be considered “defense spending:”

If the President wants to exempt all “national security” aspects of the budget from his proposed freeze, he should probably include infrastructure development in all its many forms, plus green energy programs (which will lower our reliance on oil from invidious regimes), plus education (you need smart people, especially mathematicians, scientists and engineers) to keep the country safe.

Wishful thinking, I know.

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