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American Sclerosis, Infrastructure Edition

Walter Russell Mead

America’s infrastructure is aging, and to the extent that it isn’t updated, built out, and improved upon, it can pose a serious threat to public safety. That’s the message the New York Times wants you to hear:

From coast to coast, the country’s once-envied collection of bridges, dams, pipelines, sewage treatment plants and levees is crumbling. Studies have shown that a lack of investment in public infrastructure costs billions of dollars a year in lost productivity, as people sit in traffic or wait for delayed shipments.

But experts on transportation infrastructure say the economic measures obscure the more dire threat to public safety: Every year, hundreds of deaths, illnesses and injuries can be attributed to the failure of bridges, dams, roads and other decaying structures. […]

In recent years, several well-publicized failures of roads, bridges and oil and natural gas pipelines have highlighted the lack of spending on infrastructure and the inability of strapped states to adequately inspect their structures.

This is one of those episodic lamentations and cries of woe over the infrastructure problem in the United States, and it reads like something that could have been written by the PR department of the contracting industry. That’s not to say that the problems covered aren’t real. But this article, which attributes almost all problems to a simple but mysterious lack of money, won’t help readers understand what is going on, much less how it could be fixed. Infrastructure repair is an important American problem, one which is getting worse. But to see why a problem this apparently obvious isn’t being addressed requires an understanding of the sclerosis that afflicts the American political and economic system on so many levels.

First, we need to look at the permitting system. To the Gray Lady’s credit, the piece gets this. Everything takes forever in the U.S., due to years of NIMBY obstructionism, legal review, and on and on. We need a dramatic acceleration in the speed at which our legal and permit systems operate, and we don’t just need that for infrastructure—the clogged arteries of the legal and bureaucratic state hamper business formation and all kinds of public and private activities.

The crazy cost structure in the U.S. also bears scrutiny. America’s infrastructure is so hard to fix in part because it is so much more expensive to do stuff here than in many other countries. It’s a bit like our health care system, in that regulatory capture, cronyism, and sweetheart deals involving both business and labor combine to drive up public costs. It ought to be getting cheaper to fix infrastructure—we use materials more efficiently, the machines are more powerful and faster, designs have improved—but costs are instead exploding. Our infrastructure policy, like our health care policy and our education policy, is being held hostage by producer lobbies and cabals. There are some legitimate reasons for higher costs (mostly related to safety and environmental factors), but overall it’s ridiculous that the country can’t afford to repair infrastructure that it built decades ago when we were all much poorer.

Finally, we need to acknowledge that policy deadlock reflects political gridlock: The inmates have captured the asylum and the rent seekers control the political process. In every statehouse, in every county seat in America, the businesses and unions who control the building and repairing of expensive pieces of public infrastructure are deeply integrated into the political power structure and have their tentacles into both parties. Again, something similar is true in the other areas of chronic policy failure in the U.S., like health care. The special interests, some “lefty” and some “business friendly”, agree on one thing: The public is a cow to be milked for their mutual benefit.

These issues get to the heart of what is wrong with American government today, and they require a sweeping set of reforms that right now our politics seems incapable of providing. That’s too bad; the decay of essential pillars of national health and safety is not a small problem. And the failures of policy in these critical areas has a lot to do with the increasingly angry tone of politics right, left, and center.

It may be too much to hope that politicians will solve these problems quickly, but it would be a good start if journalism did a better job of covering some of the most important stories in the United States today.

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