Handbasket weaving

One of the worst effects of the Reagan Revolution was a near-complete loss of conscious caring about public infrastructure in the U.S. Most capital-intensive essentially public projects with no Wall Street box office were neglected. For decades.

I’m reminded of this by On the pot-holed highway to hell, by John Gapper in the Financial Times. It begins,

  If anyone doubts the problems of US infrastructure, I suggest he or she take a flight to John F. Kennedy airport (braving the landing delay), ride a taxi on the pot-holed and congested Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and try to make a mobile phone call en route.

  That should settle it, particularly for those who have experienced smooth flights, train rides and road travel, and speedy communications networks in, say, Beijing, Paris or Abu Dhabi recently. The gulf in public and private infrastructure is, to put it mildly, alarming for US competitiveness...

  There are lots of ways in which infrastructure inadequacy matters to the US but I would focus on two.

  First, it imposes a drag on economic growth. The private infrastructure is poor enough – broadband speeds lag behind other countries and mobile coverage is spotty. But much of the public infrastructure is unfit, a fact that was becoming clear even before Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans and a Minneapolis bridge collapsed during rush hour last year.

  Second, it presents an awful image of the US to investors and other visitors. The state of transport and communications infrastructure is a symbol of a nation’s economic development and the US is starting to look like a third world country. In fact, scratch that. Many developing countries look and feel better.

  Of course, they are in a different phase of development. The US invested 10 per cent of its federal non-military budget in infrastructure in the 1950s and 1960s as it built the interstate highway system – at the time, the envy of the world. While US investment has fallen to less than 1 per cent of gross domestic product, China has been matching its double-digit postwar record.

Will this be an issue in the upcoming election? Barack Obama lists 21 issues in a pull-down menu. One of those is “additional issues“. There are six of those. Last on the list is “transportation“. Its entire text says “As our society becomes more mobile and interconnected, the need for 21st-century transportation networks has never been greater. However, too many of our nation’s railways, highways, bridges, airports, and neighborhood streets are slowly decaying due to lack of investment and strategic long-term planning. Barack Obama believes that America’s long-term competitiveness depends on the stability of our critical infrastructure. As president, Obama will make strengthening our transportation systems, including our roads and bridges, a top priority.” But there is a .pdf of the full plan. Argue with it if you like, but at least he has one.

John McCain lists 13 issues in his pull-down Issues menu. None of them cover this stuff, near as I can tell.

8 comments

  1. Chip’s avatar

    Doc
    Some quick observations

    Boston… ask around about the history of the “Big Dig” and if there was maybe some massive fraud. And ask around about cops on every work site … nice job.

    Why not build it right in the first place?

    Background: I was a day laborer back in mid 60′s while going to night school (Summer of ’67 Detroit… exciting times, if you know what I mean… “12thst riot”).
    I worked on bridge over the Detroit Freeway system.

    Many years later, I was driving the Autobahn in Germany, comfortably “ton up” from Hamburg to Berlin, later down to Dresden and Munich.

    While, back in the 60′s / ’70′s I could drive at severe “extra-legal” speeds on Michigan’s Interstates, I would not do so today.

    Difference : I think the Germans made the roads to last, not to be an ongoing public works project.

    Germans used much deeper roadbed, better materials.
    Americans build roads to last about 25 years, not 100.

    I often questioned the techniques and methods used, “can’t we do something to avoid corrosion”

    Combination of contractors who were in bed with politicians, and unions that want(ed) to ensure work.

    No build to last, but build to ensure future work.

    I just wish we’d get what we’d paid for.

    If we listen to John Robb, maybe we all go local and don’t need the infrastructure (toung firmly planted in cheek)

    Ciao
    Chip

  2. Chip’s avatar

    Doc
    PS : guess my point was I saw it 20yrs earlier – under Johnson

    Fie on both parties

    Ciao
    Chip

  3. links for 2008-05-14 | Yostivanich.com’s avatar

    [...] Doc Searls Weblog · Handbasket weaving Something to keep in mind with this presidental election. (tags: election infrastructure usa politics economics economy) [...]

  4. Graham Glass’s avatar

    Hi Doc,

    I thought you might enjoy a US/Constitutional perspective. The founding fathers believed that such infrastructure should be paid for by the individual states, not the federal government.

    Here’s a quote from James Madison:

    “If Congress can employ money indefinitely to the general welfare, and are the sole and supreme judges of the general welfare, they may take the care of religion into their own hands; they may appoint teachers in every State, county and parish and pay them out of their public treasury; they may take into their own hands the education of children, establishing in like manner schools throughout the Union; they may assume the provision of the poor; they may undertake the regulation of all roads other than post-roads; in short, every thing, from the highest object of state legislation down to the most minute object of police, would be thrown under the power of Congress…. Were the power of Congress to be established in the latitude contended for, it would subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature of the limited Government established by the people of America.”

    Cheers,
    Graham

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Also, as I’ve discovered, many roads are meant to be patchy in the first place.

  6. John A Arkansawyer’s avatar

    I’m looking at that Madison quote and thinking about the dreadful state of the public schools.

    In California, it’s because the state (via Prop. 13) has let them rot.

    Nationally, in no small part it’s because Texas is allowed to set the agenda for national textbooks.

    James Madison isn’t looking so good to me right now.

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