One man’s problem is another man’s opportunity, according to the general principles of market economics, and so now, apparently, we are set to undertake another round of discussion about the urgency of rebuilding American infrastructure. The President – who in his election campaign frequently derided the poor conditions of airports, bridges and tunnels, roads, water and power systems — made clear recently that he wants to oversee building of “gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways all across our land.”
Thus, a problem presents an opportunity. Having declared the problem, the chief executive now sees the opportunity to direct a nationwide economic agenda, and presumably to claim credit for any positive developments that follow from it.
I should say I fully endorse the proposition that American citizens and communities should have such public facilities as gleaming as the President envisions, for safety and convenience, to promote economic activity, and as a matter of social esteem: substandard infrastructure discourages prosperity, in general, and promotes the notion that Americans cannot improve their circumstances or do not care to make such efforts. Relying again on the principles of market economics, joy and confidence are more conducive to economic expansion than disinterest or doubt.
But I have quite a lot of doubt about the effectiveness of another sermonizing attempt to rebuild American infrastructure. I’m sure many readers can recall with me the various presidents (I can list five) that resorted to “infrastructure” as a rhetorical device. The urgency of the situation is always inarguable, and so no one really argues against it. But the urgency of the argument continues.
This is the point about “infrastructure” that I cannot endorse: it is an issue, not a proposal. Infrastructure is a term, chosen carefully to be expansive and utterly non-exclusive, so that no one can be pressed to define the cost of rebuilding American infrastructure and everyone can agree that the infrastructure needs investment.
Roads, roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways certainly will cost a lot of money, and for a very long time. Indeed, the money to be invested in such projects is partly to be wished for — as that capital will underwrite quite a lot of manufacturing activity and manufacturing jobs. There are a lot of castings involved in building such facilities, and in building the machinery to build them, as readers know well.
So, while the cost of rebuilding American infrastructure should not be raised as an objection to the proposition (remember, there is opportunity), it is not to be brushed aside either. It will be an expensive undertaking and visible ROI is necessary.
Those returns are not certain. The interstate highway system is rightly indicated as proof of the potential, but the more recent example of 2009’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is probably more instructive for our present situation.
While the President’s infrastructure proposals are far from specific, there are indications that initiatives would be devolved from the federal to the state levels, which would mean a continuation of the deregulatory initiatives that have cheered domestic manufacturers and investors during the first year of the administration, and a wider resort to user-fees, franchise rights for public services, and other methods for achieving infrastructure results without allocating tax revenues.
In addition to being a better way to finance infrastructure projects this would be an effective way to clarify what is being proposed, planned, and agreed as we proceed toward more gleaming roads, bridges, etc., because if we are being smooth-talked by elected officials arguing for better infrastructure it is only because now we have proved ourselves to be suckers for such a pitch.
Underlying all of this — the lack of clarity in the infrastructure debate as well as the declining condition of our public facilities — is the difficult truth that we are a society staring at decline because we cannot prioritize the things we must do over the things we want to do. More specifically, we do not know what we want so much as that we do not like what we have, and so we cannot commit to building much that will last, that we can pledge to complete and maintain, and leave as proof of our efforts and our worth. That is our problem — and our opportunity too.