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Tomgram: Nomi Prins, To Build or Not to Build? That Is the Question

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

My mother died in 1977; my father in 1983; and so many decades later, I think about them ever more often. Partially that's because, like most kids (I suspect), I wasn't particularly interested in their lives when they were alive. Only now do I have a thousand-and-one questions for them that can never be answered, including how they first met. I do remember my mother once telling me that my father "wooed her on roller skates," but typically I never asked her to elaborate" sigh.

These days, however, there's another reason I think about my parents regularly. I often find myself trying to imagine what it would be like to bring them, like two tourists from the past, into this twenty-first-century American world of ours and just how shocked they would be and I'm not just thinking about the still-foaming former President Donald Trump or what, for mysterious reasons, are still called "Republicans." The exception to such shock, by the way, would undoubtedly be the pandemic that's gripped this country for a year now. After all, as children they lived through the "Spanish Flu" of 1918, a pandemic experience that must have been as telling for them as it is for children today but that they never mentioned to me. In just about every other way imaginable, though, I think they would believe that they had been transported to another planet.

Let me give you but one example of what I imagine they would find beyond belief about their former homeland in the context of today's all-too-timely piece by TomDispatch regular Nomi Prins. Imagine, for instance, that I were to explain high-speed railways to them and then ask them to guess, in 2021, just how many miles of such advanced rail technology they thought the United States and China now had. The answer, as it happens, is a maximum of 34 miles for the U.S. and nearly 24,000 miles and still rapidly expanding for China. Believe me, they would be boggled. (Even we, I think, should be boggled.) They lived in an era in which, as Prins explains today, the bipartisan funding and building of infrastructure was the norm in this country. If I were to inform them that Americans, still priding themselves on being the greatest power on planet Earth (despite their monstrous mishandling of the pandemic), no longer build or even maintain infrastructure at all and that the "Republicans" of this moment are more or less guaranteed to be in lockstep opposition to any Biden administration attempt to reverse course on the subject, I suspect they would think me mad. Which is why Prins's piece today couldn't be more important. Tom

Building or Unbuilding America?
Infrastructure Should Be the Great Economic Equalizer

By

During the Trump years, the phrase "Infrastructure Week" rang out as a sort of Groundhog Day-style punchline. What began in June 2017 as a failed effort by The Donald's White House and a Republican Senate to focus on the desperately needed rebuilding of American infrastructure morphed into a meme and a running joke in Washington.

Despite the focus in recent years on President Trump's failure to do anything for the country's crumbling infrastructure, here's a sad reality: considered over a longer period of time, Washington's political failure to fund the repairing, modernizing, or in some cases simply the building of that national infrastructure has proven a remarkably bipartisan "effort." After all, the same grand unfulfilled ambitions for infrastructure were part and parcel of the Obama White House from 2009 on and could well typify the Biden years, if Congress doesn't get its act together (or the filibuster doesn't go down in flames). The disastrous electric grid power outages that occurred during the recent deep freeze in Texas are but the latest example of the pressing need for infrastructure upgrades and investments of every sort. If nothing is done, more people will suffer, more jobs will be lost, and the economy will face drastic consequences.

Since the mid-twentieth century, when most of this country's modern infrastructure systems were first established, the population has doubled. Not only are American roads, airports, electric grids, waterways, railways and more distinctly outdated, but today's crucial telecommunications sector hasn't ever been subjected to a comprehensive broadband strategy.

Worse yet, what's known as America's "infrastructure gap" only continues to widen. The cost of what we need but haven't done to modernize our infrastructure has expanded to $5.6 trillion over the last 20 years ($3 trillion in the last decade alone), according to a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Some estimates now even run as high as $7 trillion.

In other words, as old infrastructure deteriorates and new infrastructure and technology are needed, the cost of addressing this ongoing problem only escalates. Currently, there is a $1-trillion backlog of (yet unapproved) deferred-maintenance funding floating around Capitol Hill. Without action in the reasonable future, certain kinds of American infrastructure could, like that Texas energy grid, soon be deemed unsafe.

Now, it's true that the U.S. continues to battle Covid-19 with more than half a million lives already lost and significant parts of the economy struggling to make ends meet. Even before the pandemic, however, America's failing infrastructure system was already costing the average household nearly $3,300 a year.

According to ASCE, "The nation's economy could see the loss of $10 trillion in GDP [gross domestic product] and a decline of more than $23 trillion in business productivity cumulatively over the next two decades if current investment trends continue." Whatever a post-pandemic economy looks like, our country is already starved for policies that offer safe, reliable, efficient, and sustainable future infrastructure systems. Such a down payment on our future is crucial not just for us, but for generations to come.

As early as 2016, ASCE researchers found that the overall number of dams with potential high-hazard status had already climbed to nearly 15,500. At the time, the organization also discovered that nearly four out of every 10 bridges in America were 50 years old or more and identified 56,007 of them as already structurally deficient. Those numbers would obviously be even higher today.

And yet, in 2021, what Americans face is hardly just a transportation crisis. The country's energy system largely predates the twenty-first century. The majority of American electric transmission and distribution systems were established in the 1950s and 1960s with only a 50-year life cycle. ASCE reports that, "More than 640,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the lower 48 states' power grids are at full capacity." That means our systems weren't and aren't equipped to handle excess needs especially in emergencies.

The country is critically overdue for infrastructure development in which the government and the private sector would collaborate with intention and urgency. Infrastructure could be the great equalizer in our economy, if only the Biden administration and a now-dogmatically partisan Congress had the fortitude and foresight to make it happen.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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