Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure

One  of my favorite promotional advertisements is an old one.  Rachel Maddow is standing in front of a pile of dirt which could be the beginning of a new highway or of a dam or a bridge abutment.  She points out that the country needs infrastructure and that the private sector does not build it.  And then Elizabeth Warren famously said (quote from Michael Smerconsish on the Huffington Post.)

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.” And then she hit her stride:

“You built a factory out there? Good for you,” she says. “But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.”

As for the tax implications, Warren said, “Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.” The crowd enthusiastically applauded.

Of course that morphed into the out of context quote used against President Obama:  “You didn’t build it.”

What puzzles me is why the Republicans are so afraid of spending for infrastructure.  And why their fear is making so many Democrats cautious.  Juliette Kayyem tries in her column in today’s Boston Globe to make the link between national security, which every politician is for, and infrastructure.

The United States now concedes that the security of nations is “being affected by weather conditions outside of historical norms, including more frequent and extreme floods, droughts, wildfires, tornadoes, coastal high water, and heat waves.” These have had an impact on food supplies and demographic trends. The global population is expected to hit 8.3 billion by 2030. About 60 percent (up from the current 50 percent) of people will live in cities, putting greater pressure on agriculture, energy, transportation, and water supplies.

We are not alone in our concerns. The American Security Project, a bipartisan think tank, analyzed military assessments worldwide. From China to Rwanda, Belarus to Brazil, over 70 percent of nations view climate change as a top threat to their national security.

The United States now concedes that the security of nations is “being affected by weather conditions outside of historical norms, including more frequent and extreme floods, droughts, wildfires, tornadoes, coastal high water, and heat waves.” These have had an impact on food supplies and demographic trends. The global population is expected to hit 8.3 billion by 2030. About 60 percent (up from the current 50 percent) of people will live in cities, putting greater pressure on agriculture, energy, transportation, and water supplies.

We are not alone in our concerns. The American Security Project, a bipartisan think tank, analyzed military assessments worldwide. From China to Rwanda, Belarus to Brazil, over 70 percent of nations view climate change as a top threat to their national security.

Protecting against it isn’t just a matter of preserving natural resources; it is about adapting everyday activities to the threat. We are in competition with other nations in this regard: Global investments are linked to cities that can function in bad weather, airports that can lure commerce, ports that can deliver goods. When storms are powerful enough to wipe out electrical grids, our nation’s ability to project power is limited by our powerlessness.

She goes on to say that much of the infrastructure fight is a local one.

And we still must become a more resilient society, one whose basic building blocks cannot be knocked out by threats that are utterly predictable. This effort to construct a society with climate challenges in mind isn’t necessarily new, but it comes at a time when the limits of America’s infrastructure are abundantly clear and entirely visible: We all feel them as we drive to work, head to school, or use the subways.

Local governments are already invested in these national security efforts, whether they know it or not. Such efforts range from a mayor’s desire to fix potholes on residential streets to a governor’s promise to modernize public transportation. More than a lack of commitment or resources, it’s actually our hodge-podge of governance structures — New York City has control over its building codes, while Boston’s are often at the mercy of state approval — that too often become impediments to local ingenuity in preparing for oncoming storms.

At the same time as our intelligence agencies were reminding us that the climate poses as much of a threat as Iran or North Korea, the American Society of Civil Engineers last week gave American infrastructure a pathetic “D+” grade (up from a D!). Delayed maintenance investments and the failure to commit to modernization projects undermine economic progress, global competitiveness, and the sense that we live in a well-functioning society.

Boston Public Works Department employees Aroll Victor and Julio Echemendia clear rocks from a pothole in South Boston on March 12.

Boston Public Works Department employees Aroll Victor and Julio Echemendia clear rocks from a pothole in South Boston on March 12.

So back to my question:  Why are Republicans (and many Democrats) so unwilling to invest in infrastructure?  Until we figure this out, our bridges will crumble, our power grids are subject to blackouts, and many people will be like us and spend thousands on front end work due to driving on crumbling highways.  Wouldn’t the money I am going to spend this spring on my car be better spent paying taxes that will fix the roads and put some people back to work?    Just asking.

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