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How and why we must save our infrastructure and our working class simultaneously

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Richard Clark     Permalink
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The U.S. will have to produce 10 million new jobs just to get back to the unemployment levels of 2007. There's no sign that that is going to happen soon, so we're looking at an extended period of above 8% unemployment.

The biggest impact is on men. Over the past few decades, men have lagged behind women in acquiring education and skills. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at age 22, 185 women have graduated from college for every 100 men who have done so. Furthermore, men are concentrated in industries where employment is declining (manufacturing) or highly cyclical (construction).

Nearly a fifth of all men between 25 and 54 did not have jobs, the highest figure since the labor bureau began counting in 1948. We are either at or about to reach a historical marker: for the first time there will be more women in the work force than men.

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Long-term unemployment is one of the most devastating experiences a person can endure -- equal, according to some measures, to the death of a spouse. Men who are unemployed for a significant amount of time are more likely to drink more, abuse their children more and suffer debilitating blows to their identity. Unemployed men are not exactly the most eligible mates. So in areas of high unemployment, marriage rates can crumble -- while the childbearing rates of unmarried, low-income women soar.

Recessions test social capital. If social bonds are strong, nations can be surprisingly resilient. If they are weak, the social, psychological, familial and emotional costs can be huge. The U.S. endured the Great Depression reasonably well because family bonds and social trust were high. Russia, on the other hand, was decimated by the post-Soviet economic turmoil because social trust was nonexistent. Today, with most of their jobs gone overseas, America's working class is in danger of descending into a comparable kind of severe dysfunction, which, if left untended, could lead to very unfortunate political developments: the very malleable Tea Party movement (aided, shaped, influenced and abetted by Fox News and various rightwing think tanks -- combined with the massive corporate funding of major political campaigns and most of the political attack ads on TV) could easily develop fascist proclivities.

Hence the doubly crucial importance of rebuilding a national infrastructure landscape that has deteriorated so badly that it and the nation's immense indebtedness, from war and mismanagement, are beginning to threaten the nation's economic viability.

Not only do we need to stop bridges from falling down and water mains from breaking as regularly as they do, we need to prevent our working class from continuing its descent into crippling dysfunction. So what could be a better source of the jobs that can rescue America's working class, than the very jobs that can also prevent our bridges and water mains from breaking?! Yet bridges and water mains are far from being the only kinds of infrastructure in America that are badly in need of repair and replacement.

New Orleans was lost for want of an adequate system of levees and floodwalls. Lawrence Summers, President Obama's chief economic adviser, tells us that 75% of America's public schools have structural deficiencies. The nation's ports, inland waterways, drinking water and wastewater systems are also badly in need of repair.

Ignoring these problems imperils public safety, diminishes our economic competitiveness, is penny-wise and pound-foolish, and results in tremendous missed opportunities to create new jobs on a vast scale.

Competitors are leaving us behind when it comes to infrastructure investment. China is building a network of 42 high-speed rail lines, while the U.S. has yet to build its first. Other nations are well ahead of us in the deployment of broadband service and green energy technology. We spend scandalous (and costly) amounts of time sitting in traffic jams or enduring the endless horrors of airline travel. Low-cost, high-speed Internet access, increasingly common in many parts of Asia and Europe, is little more than a science-fiction fantasy in many parts of the United States.

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In Pennsylvania alone there were more than 5,600 bridges in severe need of repair. So the governor of the state more than tripled the amount in the capital budget, from $200 million a year to $700 million a year and got a special appropriation from the Legislature to do $200 million a year in extra infrastructure repair for the next four years.

The result? A lot of bridges were repaired. The bad news was that by the end of the sixth year of repairing bridges, in 2008, the number of deficient or structurally obsolete bridges had gone from 5,600 to more than 6,000. How could this be? The reason was that Pennsylvania had and still has huge numbers of bridges that are more than 75 years old, while the recommended lifespan for a bridge is 40 years. So in the time it took to replace or fix any two bridges, three more would bump onto the list of those in critical need of repair. That's what happens when, for the 30 years since Reagan took the White House, a country puts off infrastructure repair so as to keep funneling trillions of tax dollars into Wall Street schemes and tax breaks for multimillionaires.

It's easy, especially in tough economic times, to push aside infrastructure initiatives, including basic maintenance and repair, in favor of issues that seem more pressing or more appealing to the ruling class. But this misses the point that infrastructure spending that is thoughtful and wise is a crucial investment in the nation's future, as well as a world-class source of high-value jobs.

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Several years after receiving my M.A. in social science (interdisciplinary studies) I was an instructor at S.F. State University for a year, but then went back to designing automated machinery, and then tech writing, in Silicon Valley. I've (more...)

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