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Infrastructure and the Common Good

Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker last week:

What we have, uniquely in America, is a political class, and an entire political party, devoted to the idea that any money spent on public goods is money misplaced, not because the state goods might not be good but because they would distract us from the larger principle that no ultimate good can be found in the state. Ride a fast train to Washington today and you’ll start thinking about national health insurance tomorrow.

My family just returned from a two-week vacation road trip that took us through Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Alabama before returning home. You notice things while driving for days.

While in Tennessee we stopped at a state park built around a Tennessee Valley Authority dam that was built in the 1930s as a part of the New Deal and is still going strong. (I had no idea the TVA system of electrical generating dams was as big as it is.)

Norris Dam
[Norris Dam, commissioned in 1936.]

The only way our road trip was possible was thanks to the massive Interstate Highway system kicked off in the 1950s. So beneficial to be able to drive between major cities at fast speeds without having to slow down for each town. But many of the roads were in bad condition, with a minimum number of apparent ongoing repairs.

While in North Carolina we saw the news of the terrible Amtrak crash, in a Philadelphia neighborhood familiar to my mother-in-law, not far from where she used to live.

While in Alabama we visited the US Space and Rocket Center. We marveled at the almost indescribably huge Saturn V rocket and pored over displays detailing the US space program from the 1960s to the space shuttle and Skylab in the 80s and 90s to… well, not much today.

So…?

It seems obvious to me that the days of infrastructure spending are past, and that seems like an increasing problem. Sure, it’s easy to say “the government is the problem, not the solution” when you do your taxes and have to figure out the tax code that even the IRS doesn’t really understand.

But if the government isn’t going to maintain the roads, who is? Does anybody really think we’d be better off without the federal Interstate Highway system, or without the TVA’s utilities? Thousands of commuters use the train system every day, helping ease the strain (and pollution) of car commutes. Should we hope somehow that private enterprise will fund those repairs and infrastructure investments?

It’s enlightening to spend a few minutes looking at the Federal Government spending breakdown over on the National Priorities Project. Of a nearly $4 trillion federal budget, a full two-thirds of it is commitments to Social Security and Medicare.

Then here’s how the remaining third breaks down:

It’s striking to me how small a fraction is spent on infrastructure-type things. The entire budget for transportation, energy & environment, and science is only 8% of discretionary spending. We spend seven times as much on the military as we do for highways, airways, power, environmental protection, and space combined.

This is not workable for the United States in the long term. Regardless of our party affiliation, we should recognize that the government is at its best when it is pooling resources for the common good. And from my vantage point in the driver’s seat of a minivan these past couple weeks, there’s a lot of good that needs to be done if we could just agree to make it a priority to do it.

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