Why Infrastructure is So Much Bigger Than Just Infrastructure

Work Crews from Winkelman's Environmentally Responsible Construction (WERC) and Trillium Development readied a SES wind turbine for lifting atop a hundred sixty foot tower at the School of Environmental Studies in Apple Valley. (Photo: Star Tribune via Getty Images)

Why Infrastructure is So Much Bigger Than Just Infrastructure

"The beauty of pursuing a rebuilt infrastructure is that it brings with it the solution to the other four spokes of national renewal... They work together, like the spokes on the metaphorical wheel that unites them."

Biden's infrastructure plan is ambitious. But reporting about it doesn't begin to capture just how important it is to the U.S.'s success, even survival. There are five paradigm-bending dimensions that make infrastructure so much more important than infrastructure alone. They are like the five spokes on a wheel of national renewal. Understanding those spokes is essential to mustering the political will to make it happen.

The first spoke is infrastructure itself. Infrastructure is the platform that all of the rest of the economy runs on. Roads, bridges, ports, airports, water systems, sewerage systems, electrical systems, mass transit, etc. The U.S. infrastructure was designed in the post-World War II era when the country had the vision and the money to think big, to build big.

Think of Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System. It created a continental-scale market that drove the high volumes and, so, low costs that allowed U.S. producers to dominate global markets for decades. It spawned the panoply of culture we call suburbia, and the tens of trillions of dollars of private economic activity that followed. That's why the fifties and sixties are commonly called "The Golden Age of Capitalism."

But in the 1980s, the U.S. changed economic paradigms. Rather than building an economy for everybody, Republicans convinced us that we would all be better off if we transferred a huge share of national income and wealth to those who were already the most-wealthy. That was the explicit premise--and promise--of Reagan's Supply Side Economics. It has been our operating economic ideology ever since.

The result was that the government was starved for revenue and began an epoch of exploding deficits. So, we have not made significant improvements to the nation's infrastructure in over four decades, forty years. We are pretending we can have a twenty-first century economy based on a mid-twentieth century infrastructure platform. We can't, and it's childish to play otherwise. If the U.S. wants to be a global economic power in the twenty-first century, it needs a twenty-first century infrastructure on which to operate. That means the existing platform must be rebuilt, upgraded, modernized.

The second spoke on the wheel of national renewal via infrastructure is employment. While the government was shunting trillions of dollars to the already-wealthy, industrialists began transferring factories and factory jobs to low-wage countries so they could get a work force that cost one-twentieth what it cost here. Think Mexico with NAFTA and China with the World Trade Organization. It began as a trickle in the eighties, gained steam in the nineties, and became a tsunami in the aughts.

More than 50,000 U.S. factories were shut down and shipped out. Millions of steel workers and auto workers and ship builders and others who used to make $40 an hour, with union benefits, lost those jobs. Average wages for U.S. workers are little changed from what they were in the seventies, while average wages for Chinese workers are 10 TIMES what they were then. That one fact says it all. Another indicative fact? Forty percent of the U.S. trade deficit with China comes from U.S. corporations that had once produced here, but now produce there and export their products back to the U.S.

The communities that had once supported those jobs and families became ghost towns. We've given the process a name, Deindustrialization, and the aggregate effect a description: the Rust Belt. Yes, many workers found jobs as greeters at Walmart, as counter clerks at McDonalds, as drivers for Uber, baristas at Starbucks, and such. But those jobs do not begin to sustain the lifestyles that the American dream relied on. That's why the American dream is becoming more and more a fantasy, if not a nightmare.

If the U.S. is to have a modern infrastructure and a vibrant economy--one that meets the expectations of our expectations--it needs tens of millions of high-paying jobs that cannot be out-sourced to China or Mexico. That is what a renewed infrastructure promises.

Tens of millions of jobs for construction workers in all trades, and factory workers with the skills to build the Buy American products that a rebuilt infrastructure requires: concrete workers; iron workers; heavy equipment operators; electricians; machinists; sheet metal workers; welders; pipe fitters; solar equipment installers; engineers to design it all; foremen to oversee it; and companies to carry it all out.

It will be vastly larger than the Interstate Highway System was, for it will encompass all facets of the economy's operating platform. It will engender greater economic dynamism than did automobile culture, for it will include not only that in a national fleet of electrical vehicles, but energy generation, transmission, mass transit, insulation of the nation's building stock, and much more. And it cannot be outsourced to China or anywhere else.

The third dimension of necessity--the third spoke in the wheel of national renewal--that compels a massive infrastructure rebuild is the changing global energy paradigm. In the nineteenth century, coal was the central ingredient to industrial civilization. That's why Britain dominated that century: it dominated coal. In the twentieth century, oil replaced coal as the central fuel in the global economy. That's why the U.S. dominated the twentieth century: it dominated oil.

But now, renewable energy is replacing oil as the central energy source for the twenty-first century. Already, the cost of producing electricity from renewables is comparable to the cost of producing by using fossil fuels. And we haven't even begun to drive down the cost curves that follow from massive increases in scale of production. It is easy to chart 90% reductions in the cost of renewable energy production once volumes approach global scale. At that point, continued reliance on fossil fuels to drive an economy will be suicidal, like staying with wood in the 1800s, or with coal in the 1900s. Winners adapt to changing paradigms, or, better yet, drive them.

Right now, China leads the world in renewable technologies, from photovoltaics and wind turbines, to storage batteries and transmission systems. As with infrastructure and jobs, if the U.S. wants to remain a global leader, even a player, it has to quickly shift the locus of its economy's energy source from oil to renewables. No major power has ever led from reliance on past-generation technologies. That is the central task of reconfiguring the nation's infrastructure.

A fourth spoke in the wheel of necessity arguing for a rebuilt infrastructure is climate. Twentieth-century reliance on fossil fuels pumped trillions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It stays there and acts like an insulator, a gaseous blanket, preventing the sun's heat from escaping out into space as it has done since the beginning of the planet. The result is an inexorable warming of the planet, with apocalyptic consequences.

The polar ice caps are melting, so much so that the axis of the earth's rotation has been altered as the gravitational mass at the poles has been redistributed into the oceans. For decades, the oceans acted as heat sinks, absorbing heat from the atmosphere and slowing the rise in its temperature. But they are becoming saturated, suggesting that future heating may not be mitigated, so will increase asymptotically. Melting of the Siberian permafrost is releasing billions of tons of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is 25 times more thermogenic (heat inducing) than is carbon dioxide. The feedback loops are reinforcing each other, amplifying, and accelerating.

At some point, the earth's inherently stabilizing ecological systems will collapse. We don't know when, or what the trigger will be, which is part of the peril, but we're seeing harbingers of it in the collapse of the Great Barrier Reef near Australia, the Amazon rain forest switching to being a CO2 generator, the changing acidity in the oceans, massive die-offs in all manner of species of plants and insects, the worst drought in Europe in 2,000 years, and so on.

Think of a person with lung disease, kidney failure, heart arrythmia, high blood pressure, and liver problems. The slightest thing will spell the end, like we saw with COVID where those with pre-existing conditions had much higher mortality rates. In this case, the end will be of civilization as the biotic carrying systems that undergird human life all collapse, like dominoes, one collapse setting off another, all at the same time, and all without warning.

That is the situation on the planet today and the scale and complexity of it are vastly beyond our ability to control or even fathom. It is impossible to overstate the existential imperative of this, not just for Americans, or for humans, but for all life on the planet. The single most important thing we can do to reverse the headlong hurtling to the precipice of destruction is to reduce the amount of carbon we pump into the atmosphere, which means phasing out fossil fuels by building a renewable energy-based economy, which requires a retrofitted infrastructure, which, as it happens, means millions of high paying jobs that cannot be exported.

The final spoke in the wheel of national renewal that centers on infrastructure is political. It is whether democracy endures as the foundation of the American political system. Right now, there are tens of millions of people who are enraged at the system, which they believe has failed them. The genius of Donald Trump and his ilk is that they have convinced those legions that they've been stabbed in the back by baby-eating Democrats, by nebulous, pedophile, blood drinking Deep State actors, and by all similar manner of invented, lurid evil-doers.

The truth is that the system has failed the American worker, by shipping its industrial heartland abroad and reneging on the social contract that said if you work hard, keep your nose clean, and play by the rules, you'll be OK. You will have a comfortable life, and your children will be able to have an even better life than you did.

The unannounced, one-sided abrogation of that contract and the resultant downward mobility inflicted on tens of millions of hard-working people is what animates the mis-guided rage of so many of those seeking to destroy democracy. Their rage will not be mollified by anything less than society's fulfillment of the social contract, which means restoration of the economic opportunity that was once theirs and that is latent and available in a rebuilt national infrastructure.

The beauty of pursuing a rebuilt infrastructure is that it brings with it the solution to the other four spokes of national renewal: plenty of good-paying jobs; adaptation to the new century's new energy paradigm; a climate fix; and saving democracy. They work together, like the spokes on the metaphorical wheel that unites them. Solving one of them solves them all. It's the greatest five-fer in the history of the world, certainly of the nation.

The really amazing thing is that the cost of such an infrastructure renewal is a pittance compared to not doing it. Right now, the U.S. survives by writing hot checks to the world. That is what the $29 trillion run-up in national debt since 1980 is all about. It's what the $6 trillion run-up in just the last year was all about. But that is patently unsustainable.

Once the world's creditors stops imagining the U.S. will ever pay them back, because it can't, because it has an obsolete economy designed for an earlier century, they'll stop lending. The magical credit card will be gone and the economic carnage will make the Great Recession look like a child's Monopoly game gone awry. Interest rates to attract capital will go into the stratosphere, choking off the possibility of rebuilding anything. The shock waves will ripple into the next century.

Or, think of the savings when the U.S. doesn't have to garrison the Middle East any more. We've wasted almost $8 trillion in the past two decades on failed interventions in the Middle East, all to protect U.S. control of the world's oil supply. That is four times what Biden is asking for to cover the entirety of his plan. Would we spend the same amount to maintain control of the world's coal supply? Obviously not, not when coal is an obsolete resource, even a liability. That is about to become the future for oil and we will be able to save hundreds of billions of dollars a year not wasting money fortifying the relic of an obsolete past. In that way--savings on military spending alone--infrastructure revitalization pays for itself.

We would be remiss to not mention the forces that are arrayed against this idea.

Changing institutional paradigms, whether economic, energy, climatic, or other, means changing the centers of power in a civilization. That's why there is so much resistance. Moving away from fossil fuels means defunding probably the greatest locus of wealth on earth. Fossil fuel owners are the greatest funders of national, state, and local politicians who seek to destroy democracy by enacting voter suppression laws. You can understand why.

Democracy is the only institution in the society with the power to redirect national purposes and national resources to new bases of growth, to renewal, and to life. To holders of existing power--and this includes the big banks, the weapons makers, and others--democracy must be destroyed so that it cannot carry out such shifts. That is the fundamental source of conflict in the debate over infrastructure: not whether it is needed; not whether it is possible; not whether it is affordable; but whether existing loci of power are dispossessed in the process.

If they are, those centers of power will do everything they can to stop it. Which they are. They're having their dime-bag politicians, those with the dignity of Matt Gaetz, the gravitas of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the integrity of Lindsey Graham, and the courage of Ted Cruz manufacture excuses for why it can't happen, just like they manufactured excuses for why the nation didn't need a January 6th commission to investigate the gravest attack on the nation since the Civil War. An honest politician is one who, once bought, stays bought, which is what we have in the opposition to renewing the nation's infrastructure.

In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the former British Foreign Secretary, David Carrington, prophetically weighed the import of it. "So, capitalism has defeated communism. Now, we will see the battle between capitalism and democracy." And those are the political stakes in the quest for improved infrastructure: whether we will be governed as a democracy; or ruled by a plutocratic autocracy--authoritarian rule by the rich. We're already a long ways down that path. This is the final battle in that war and we're fools to underestimate the seriousness of it, for too many trillions of dollars are at stake.

But we should be clear, too, that the overall stakes are so much greater than simply a political order. They include whether we will have a country at all, perhaps whether we will even have human civilization of any sort on earth, short of scattered pockets of survivors huddling in caves. For, if we don't build a new infrastructure so we can immediately address the climate crisis, everything else will be as sand castles on the beach. We can dither and dawdle, play and pretend, like children with our plastic shovels and buckets, but the tide is coming in.

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