Thursday, February 26, 2009

Infrastructure Insights

February 26, 2009, 8:30 a.m.

Lessons from Iowa City's Crumbling Infrastructure
(brought to you by*)

With our President talking about spending billions on "infrastructure," I thought it might be useful to bring this concept "FromDC2Iowa." But how? What might be an Iowa City-sized example of an "infrastructure" in need of repair?

And what lessons might it hold for our current global economic collapse?

Walking to town the other day, coming round and down the circular walkway across Riverside Drive to the Burlington Street bridge, I noticed some chunks of concrete and rust in a pile on the walkway.

Curious as to where it might have come from, I looked up and saw:

Apparently the steel used to hold the concrete together was beginning to rust through. Other, seemingly tiny spots showed the beginning of deterioration, presumably from deep within.

Sometimes there were what appeared to be lengthy stretches of rusting metal. Could this have anything to do with why the concrete span across the highway sort of bounces up and down when you walk on it, I wondered.

There were more missing chunks of concrete.

I'm no engineer, but I recall being told years ago that this can be a result of the salt used to melt ice on bridges in the winter -- whether pedestrian or car and truck bridges.

There are nearly 600,000 auto/truck bridges in the U.S. (597,404), and nearly a quarter of them need work (24.3%; 144, 942). Better Roads Magazine 2008 Roads Inventory, November 2008.

Our footbridge is just one little home town example of the economic challenge -- and opportunity for job creation -- confronting our nation if we were to really undertake the task of rebuilding the infrastructure (not just roads, bridges and schools, but natural gas pipelines, sewers, power lines, railroads, Internet broadband, and water lines, among other things).

We're still living with "infrastructure" built by the "CCC boys" and others during the last Great Depression 70 years ago -- indeed, some of our infrastructure is twice that age.

Somewhere along the way we lost a major part of what made America great: sacrificing and building for future generations, creating rather than just consuming. A commitment to, an investment in, future generations is what inspired the Louisiana Purchase, opened the West, spanned the continent with railroads, and later the Interstate Highway system; set aside some of our country's greatest beauty spots as national parks; built libraries, K-12 schools, land grant colleges, universities, and funded a "GI Bill" to fill them with returning veterans -- the list is endless.

We are no longer willing to share the sacrifice of war with our military: instead of pay-as-you-go financing, with citizens scrimping to buy the equivalent of the WWII "war bonds," our government grants tax breaks to our wealthiest and passes the cost to future generations; instead of rationing our president told us after 9/11 to "go shopping;" instead of a Selective Service draft, with the pain of dead sons and daughters falling on all American towns and families, we divert state and national guard members, and enrich the likes of Blackwater and Haliburton with the billions spent on for-profit, privatized war.

Instead of building family businesses over decades, we've turned a blind eye to businesses merging to a size now "too big to fail;" run by hired hands earning millions, willing to move on when more millions are offered elsewhere; whose performance is measured by three-month (quarterly) stock prices and other statistics. Why would they fix the roof this quarter when it's not going to start leaking until next quarter? Why worry about mortgages that will never be paid when bonuses are based on sales this quarter rather than bankruptcies next quarter? After all, you'll be gone four months from now.

Instead of the levels of saving of the Chinese, or even what Americans were averaging three decades ago (9%), we've spent the last ten years spending more than we earn -- a "negative" savings rate made possible (even if only temporarily) with second mortgages and credit cards.

Instead of building on the hills, and clearing the rivers' flood plains for parks, forests, prairies, and recreation areas for our own and future generations, we rebuild -- hoping and assuming that the government, somebody, anybody, will quite literally "bail us out" when the inevitable next flood occurs.

We act as if Gordon Gekko ("Wall Street" (1987)) was right: "Greed is good." Ayn Rand is our shepherd, we shall not want. Government is the problem, not the solution.

Karl Marx told us there would be days like this.** [Lest there be any question, no, I'm not advocating that "communism" would be an improvement over what we have.]

But even he did not predict crumbling walkways in Iowa City.

[** I don't want to take the time to try to find passages in Das Kapital that would be both relevant and comprehensible, so here is a very quick and secondary source summary: "Marx argued that capitalism was prone to periodic crises. He suggested that over time, capitalists would invest more and more in new technologies, and less and less in labor. Since Marx believed that surplus value appropriated from labor is the source of profits, he concluded that the rate of profit would fall even as the economy grew. When the rate of profit falls below a certain point, the result would be a recession or depression in which certain sectors of the economy would collapse. Marx thought that during such a crisis the price of labor would also fall, . . .. Marx believed that increasingly severe crises would punctuate this cycle of growth, collapse, and more growth. Moreover, he believed that in the long-term this process would necessarily enrich and empower the capitalist class and impoverish the proletariat." Karl Marx, Wikipedia.]

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good job on the radio the other day. Very insightful interview.