Once World-leading Infrastructure in Decay: the Road to Recovery

The road to economic recovery must run through major new infrastructure upgrades, innovation and development. The American infrastructure was once the envy of the world, a valiant testament to the ingenuity and collaborative muscle of a free people; now, it is crumbling [pdf] from malignant neglect, and the cynicism of our political system’s dealings with money.

Infrastructure spending was once part of the central mission of building a great nation, open to trade and competition, where free people would migrate, ship, travel and explore, according to their own free will, imagination, and opportunity. Now, that embarrassment of riches is little more than embarrassment, and the resulting confusion over how we let such a vibrant landscape slide so far.

The Political Money Problem

When money in politics makes even the smallest public works project a trophy for a candidate, and individual senators can hold the entire nation hostage, demanding kickbacks for one state, the nation suffers. The people suffer, the quality of enterprise suffers, opportunities are lost and the infrastructure we depend on falters. We become less than we were.

But money in politics is not the only problem. It is also critically important to look at how money in politics has altered the political discourse regarding projects that benefit the people of the United States directly—that vibrant middle class we used to be so proud to encourage, to serve and to see expanding. Now, the big money interests deliberately back politicians not interested in projects for the public good, but rather in transferring wealth from middle class families and small businesses directly into the credit lines and financing schemes that fund multinational megacorporations and the wealthiest of 100% private holdings.

This is an open secret. We know it is the status quo, but we (the people of the United States, even the politicians, it would seem) feel helpless to reverse the trend. There is too much power in the hands of interests that are too cynical and too ready to undo any good that is done, at the stroke of a pen, signing a check that will steer critically important policy by choosing who wins elections.

That’s the popular mood, and the facile commentary. But there is something more to be taken note of: this is a democracy, and the people of the United States can change their government. We can change the way its elected leaders arrive at their posts, and we can divert funding away from low-value spending (like corporate tax breaks), toward high-value spending (like trains, bridges, levees, and public education).

In the midst of this brutal rhetorical battle over the nation’s priorities, which is masquerading as a debate about the so-called “debt ceiling”, the American people can demand reason, pragmatism, democracy and principled public service. We can make it clear to newspapers and to television networks that posturing, voodoo economic visions and sabotage will not win the day.

Priorities: Values & the Budget

There is no reason the United States of America must live with outdated and underperforming infrastructure, much less with infrastructure that is vulnerable to decay and collapse. There is no reason the people of the United States must see their future limited and constrained by the massive opportunity costs associated with misallocating resources by way of unfunded tax giveaways and unfunded wars.

Budget policy is not about politics; it is about priorities. It is imperative that if we want the most flexibility to build optimum benefits into our economic and political future, we don’t undertake campaigns of wealth-transfer or warfare, for which there is no exit strategy and no projected funding pool.

It is not true that a blanket policy requiring annual balancing of the federal budget will give us the sound underpinning required for a vibrant economic future. What is required is spending that intelligently takes in the long-term value added of investment and outcomes. Spending that sparks reinvestment produces better long-term returns and is better at stimulating job-creation and economic recovery.

When it comes to infrastructure, we have a $2 trillion problem debt of maintenance never performed, and an urgent need to steer infrastructure redevelopment funds to achieving two parallel goals simultaneously: bringing existing infrastructure up to code, while making the entire landscape of infrastructure fit for real performance in the 21st century economic climate.

A generative approach to valuing infrastructure budgeting is required: we must learn to evaluate the degree to which our overall economic resource base is expanded by the spending we do to promote redevelopment of crucial infrastructure.

The Road to Recovery

The nation’s infrastructure needs a major overhaul. It needs to be reinvented: not just upgraded to at long last meet existing code, but transitioned into a new technological era, in which smart grids, smart highways, and bullet trains will liberate the people of the United States, at the individual and community levels, like never before.

A few proposals:

  • Consult the National Strategic Narrative [pdf], penned by Capt. Wayne Porter and Col. Mark Mykleby, for Adm. Mullen and the Joint Chiefs — sustainability (reliability of resources) is security
  • Devote an existing segment of the Pentagon budget to infrastructural integrity
  • Establish a new Infrastructure Improvement Bank
  • Establish a new Engineering Corps for Economic Prosperity and Infrastructure Development
  • Devote a segment of higher education funding to programs that foster advanced innovative thinking and technologies that free us from out-dated paradigms
  • Calculate as part of our debt- and deficit-reduction strategy the long-term costs of failing infrastructure; build ROI from timely upkeep into long-term calculations
  • Give the American people more options for transportation, privileging zero-emissions technologies
  • Incentivize manufacturers and builders to abandon planned obsolescence, establish long-term resilience standards

And one more thing: tie all corporate tax credits to job-creation (in the US) and/or innovation. This will help to generate not only opportunity, household income, consumer spending, and revenue; it will also build into the recovering economy a pattern of compounded prosperity and new investment. Tax-spending (known to proponents as “cuts”) will build more value for the economy, and the middle class will have more influence, thereby setting the stage for policies that result in better quality shared infrastructure.

We have an opportunity to work together, as a free people, to rebuild our civic discourse, and to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, to suit the advanced technological and economic demands of the 21st century. It is beneath us to avoid the task, and we will face real and degrading consequences, as a nation, if we do nothing to counter the crisis.

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