National Infrastructure

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Freeway Interchange
Freeway Interchange

Can America afford to allow its infrastructure to deteriorate further? Can America afford not to innovate and upgrade and reinvent its infrastructure? Can America even afford infrastructure modification while government debt continues to climb? These are huge and far reaching questions. Let's take a shot at answering them.

Can America afford to allow its infrastructure to deteriorate further?

Of course it can, depending on how you define the term, 'afford'. If one defines the lives lost and persons injured in the Minnesota overpass collapse as a lesser value than the taxes required to pay for its upkeep and improvements, then one can begin to argue that we can afford to allow it to deteriorate. However, there are hosts of other costs associated with deteriorating infrastructure, some of them cascading and multiplying. If one attempts to remove the human cost element from the answer, and deal only in dollars and cents, then there is much to put on the scales to weigh deterioration vs. improvement.

Travel infrastructure with outdated rail transit has costs. Amtrak can't produce a profit. And freight rail slowed to 20 miles per hour for hundreds of miles in a cross country trip, raises the cost of transportation, which negatively affects business and consumers alike with elevated prices. Travel by roads in America cost Americans billions of dollars each year sitting idly in stalled rush hour traffic jams, which are routine on highways like 401, the busiest highway in America. Those costs are measured in wasted fuel consumption, the environmental impact of that wasted fuel consumption, and losses in productivity for business waiting on their personnel caught in slow or non-moving traffic.

Similarly, air traffic infrastructure is so over-burdened as to cause inordinate delays and cost overruns as a result of something as common as the weather, not to mention security risks. Millions of Americans are at risk drinking their water in America. The number of compromised sewers leaching their contaminants into drinking water supplies is a rapidly growing risk for America. Broken sewer and water mains costs business and consumers alike increasingly each year.

Infrastructure is is the underlying physical and organizational structures needed for the economy to function. Everything we, as Americans, depend upon for health, security, and freedom to go about our lives depends upon a cost effective and capable infrastructure. And our nation's infrastructure is falling apart. From fire and police department services layoffs, to clean water accessibility, Americans are increasingly at risk of losing health, security, and freedom to conduct their lives as they wish, as a result of failures to maintain and upgrade America's infrastructure. It is not wise or prudent for Americans to take the position that infrastructure is somebody else' problem until it becomes their own problem. When it becomes your problem, you can't fix it. It takes a society of willing citizens to amend and repair infrastructure.

The private sector is absolutely unwilling to address infrastructure challenges and costs. Just ask Bill Gates, who has been harping on this topic for decades now, with little effect. The private sector is the wrong place to look for leadership in cost sharing to maintain and upgrade infrastructure. This is not a fault with the private sector. Business is in the business of minimizing costs and maximizing revenues, or, in other words, making a profit. It is not in their interest to shoulder the costs of infrastructure maintenance at the national level when their profits are doing just fine on the decaying infrastructure today.

The private sector can be relied upon to provide the services needed to upgrade and maintain infrastructure, so long as someone else is paying for it. That is the nature of business. Business will not provide a service or product unless their are dollars demanding that service or product. So, who is going to provide the dollars to buy infrastructure maintenance, innovation, and upgrade to address the costs of failing and out of date infrastructure? The society as a whole, by way of their government, whether local, national, or in partnership. There simply is no alternative in American society.

These are just some of the costs that have to be placed on the scale to weigh the question of whether we can afford to allow our infrastructure to deteriorate further. Not only, however, do we need to address the rising costs of failure to maintain infrastructure, but, we must innovate and come up with whole new infrastructure plans and strategies to address a host of other rising costs looming in our near future. 

One of the greatest threats to American's way of living is virtually unknown to the American people, because it hasn't happened in our modern electronic times. But, it will happen. Solar storms that have hit the earth directly in centuries and decades past, went largely unnoticed because civilizations had not yet become electrified as a means of conducting their lives. Cows were milked by hand, soil tilled by horse, and transportation of goods to feed and clothe people were handled by horse and coal or wood burning railroad locomotives. Imagine for a moment having to live for weeks, months, or even years without electricity, today? Stores would have no food on the shelves, electric gas pumps would not function, communication devices including TV and radio would be knocked out, and batteries would become worth their weight in gold for their limited uses. Yet, our politicians have not even begun to discuss a plan for this coming event, let alone allocate funding to address it. 

America has a horrible record of addressing failure after it has occurred, and then only to a limited extent. The space shuttle disaster as a result of faulty O-rings, known at the time to be a risk, is but one of myriad examples. The race riots of the 1940's and 1960's are another. There are notable exceptions like Ike Eisenhower's interstate highway system, and the partnership between government and railroads during the 19th century, or John F. Kennedy's pledge to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade, not because wining the space race would be easy, but, because it would be hard (expensive). These were forward looking solutions to anticipated needs, but, they are among a short list in America history.

President Obama is about to deliver his second State Of The Union speech, and it appears as though infrastructure will be a major component of his speech. No doubt, he will highlight how infrastructure spending translates into jobs for Americans, a major concern for millions out of work as well as government revenue. But, that is not the chief objective. Safeguarding and providing for the quality of life, in our nation's future, that is at least equal to that enjoyed in the past or present, is the chief objective. This is a duty and obligation each generation of Americans has lived up to, for the most part, toward the next generation of Americans. Whether America will continue that tradition is now very open to question and concern.

America's approach to this issue has to be as common sensical as that of any successful American middle class family who sits down to prepare their budget. The process is the same. Prioritize your 'can't live without' needs as number 1. Subtract these from your income. Then, with what income is left over, allocate those dollars to 'important, but, not essential' needs. Subtract that from your remaining income. If there is still income left unallocated, prepare a planned list of things one wants and can afford on what income is leftover.

All three of these steps are crucial to prudent and responsible management of one's resources. Where does infrastructure fall in this priority list? It must be a priority one issue. The reason is simple. It costs LESS to maintain a car than it does to replace one. Same holds true for our national infrastructure. We all recognize the need to rein in government spending and increase government revenues to end these dangerous deficits that threaten our future. Our infrastructure however, underwrites all other economic activity in American society, and the most cost effective way to deal with it, is to maintain it, instead of waiting for it to fail and then reconstruct all new infrastructure.

In addition, the jobs that infrastructure maintenance and innovation create, will increase government revenues, a vital consideration in addressing national deficits and debt. If business and the private sector face increasing losses as a result of infrastructural impediments, not only are its workers and consumers negatively affected, but, government revenues also will fall as a result of less economic activity, as a result. This issue should be a no-brainer. But, it will instead, be a fought measure. And that is the nature of politics, to fight over the use of the people's money.

Can America afford not to innovate and upgrade and reinvent its infrastructure? That is a more difficult question to answer, because differing groups of Americans will differ widely on just what innovations and upgrades are essential. At the very least, our government must begin to address the solar storm issue and come up with a plan of action to address that inevitability. High speed rail for personal commute is a luxury, America can afford to put off. High speed rail for the transportation of goods is essential to driving down future costs and will pay for itself in increased economic activity. Renewable and environmentally safer electricity production is an investment that will continue to pay dividends well after the costs have been recovered. Water infrastructure is essential to American's health and well being. It is one of those 'can't live without' budget items, literally.

America cannot afford to innovate and reinvent better infrastructure for economic activity, however, if it insists on spending its money on non-essential items like military jet engines, which the military itself, doesn't even want. That is insane from a budgetary vantage point. There really should be no problem for our government to rein in military spending in a very large way, without compromising our nation's security. Politically, however, there is.  To accomplish responsible military budget cuts requires a political will which has not yet come into existence.

America has the finest and most cutting edge medical treatment facilities and capability in the world. But, it is no longer affordable, or within reach of millions of working and unemployed Americans. We don't think of health care as an infrastructural item, normally, but, in reality, it is. Finding ways to make health care both affordable, and accessible to Americans today and in the future, is one of the largest budgetary issues Americans will face in this decade. Going backwards is not progress. Making health care less accessible, or more expensive, is the wrong direction. America can't avoid dealing with this issue since, it is the largest single threat to our nation's economy going forward. It is not health care quality infrastructure that is the problem here, but, the financial infrastructure to make it accessible; which is the challenge. And one that must be overcome.

America can afford to upgrade and innovate its infrastructure, if it will focus on those projects that will pay for themselves, and then some. With a looming 20 trillion dollar national debt by the end of this decade, America cannot afford to avoid thinking in these terms where economic infrastructure is concerned. And that answers the third question posed at the beginning of this article, Can America even afford infrastructure modification while government debt continues to climb? Yes, it can, but, only if it chooses to invest in those modifications which will continue to pay back the American people with increased economic activity, well after the modification costs have been recovered. Government spending is not a bad thing. Wasteful government spending is. And any spending that does not provide the American people a tangible and necessary return on their tax dollar investment, is wasteful at this juncture in our history.  

The vastly more difficult question to answer is whether our political system is capable of addressing these issues in this common sense oriented American family approach to budgeting their income and needs. But, that question will have to be addressed in another article. Ultimately, however, the American people receive the kind of government and governance they are willing to elect to office. If they want their future to improve, they must improve their choices on the kind of politicians they elect. Because their choices to date, have brought our nation to this point of asking "how do we get out of this mess?"  To elect better politicians, America must dramatically improve upon its education infrastructure and results. It takes an informed and educated voter to cast such a vote to improve America's political landscape.

Regrettably, too many Americans could not even define what a political landscape, is. Some might even venture to answer it is the Rose Garden at the White House, or grounds around Capitol buildings. That has to change.

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This page contains a single entry by David R. Remer published on January 24, 2011 10:37 PM.

U.S. Economic Future was the previous entry in this blog.

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