Neglect and Decline

During Bill Clinton’s campaign for President, James Carville famously insisted “It’s the Economy, Stupid,” and it is certainly true that economic conditions have a huge effect on political attitudes. What that catchy slogan misses, however, is the extent to which the economy, in turn, depends upon a country’s infrastructure.

Societies require systems—both physical and social. Those systems provide us with important, albeit largely taken-for-granted webs of support. When those systems don’t work—or when they have been corrupted or neglected so that they only work for some groups and individuals—a society fails to function as it should.

A colleague of mine once made an observation that has stayed with me: in poor, third-world countries, people are no less entrepreneurial or hard working than those who live in the developed West. The relative lack of economic activity—especially more sophisticated enterprises– can be traced to the lack of basic infrastructure.

Businesses need multiple kinds of infrastructure in order to have a chance of succeeding (beginning with enough people with the wherewithal to buy their goods—i.e. markets). Undeveloped countries lack roads, trucks and railroads to transport necessary raw materials and to ship finished goods. They often lack reliable electricity and potable water. Even more importantly, many countries can’t even provide entrepreneurs with the security and social stability businesses require, the sort of social order we take for granted.

Infrastructure is much more than roads and sewers, important as those are. Infrastructure—in its most expansive sense—includes important social supports like the rule of law. In most western democratic countries (although not in the U.S.), health care is considered part of a country’s essential social infrastructure.

Needless to say, equal access to a robust social and physical infrastructure plays a huge role in mitigating economic inequality.

Elizabeth Warren is one of the few elected officials who seems to understand the essential role played by infrastructure. As she recently reiterated,

 “people who built great businesses worked hard. Most successful entrepreneurs worked their tails off. But those businesses needed good soil to grow – and that meant they need roads and bridges to get their goods to market, dependable and affordable power grids, access to clean water and safe sewers, up-to-date communications – the kind of basic infrastructure that we build together.

Coming out of the Great Depression, we built those roads and bridges and power grids that helped businesses grow right here in America. We plowed money into our future, and as those businesses grew, they created great jobs here at home.

 But by the 1980s, our country sharply cut back on making those investments in our future, and now we’re getting left behind. Today China spends 9% of its GDP on infrastructure. Europe spends about 5% of its GDP on infrastructure. They are building a future for their businesses – and better jobs for their people. But the United States is investing only 2.4% and looking for more ways to make cuts. Today, the American Society of Civil Engineers says we have about $3.6 trillion worth of deferred maintenance, repairs and upgrading – and every day we’re falling behind.

Disinvestment is worst, of course, in the poorer precincts of our nation—in areas where it is most needed.

America’s failure to attend to our basic infrastructure is one of the most serious policy issues we face. It is maddening to watch members of Congress in both parties posture for interest groups and play petty politics while our bridges and sewers crumble, our power grid degrades, and other countries’ wireless service exceeds ours in reliability and speed.

I think it was Eric Hoffer–the longshoreman/philosopher–who said we cannot judge the greatness of a civilization by the roads and buildings it constructs, but by how well it maintains what it builds.

By that measure, we’re in decline.


  1. You know this, I know this, most thinking Americans know this but…the Tea Party owned GOP’s determined efforts against that colored guy in the White House and his party supersedes all else…including common sense thinking and action. The 1% is being carried and made richer by the working class (too many at minimim wage and low level income) and seniors and disabled living on Social Security whose taxes are not enough to maintain, let alone replace, crumbling infrastructure – in all forms. Tax abatements that lure and keep businesses in business must be paid for by someone and neither the business owners or the 1% are not willing to pay their fair share. Although President Obama continues to have my 100% support, this goes back to his continuing Bush’s tax cuts to the wealthy rather than allowing them to lapse on the date Bush set.

    Here on the east side of Indianapolis I struggled for months driving through relatively short stretches of North Shadeland and far East Washington Street repaving. Rarely actually seeing work being done. To reach those areas I drove/drive on streets with grass filled cracks, pot holes, over bridges with crumbling side barriers and found newly painted bike lanes where I have never seen a bike in 14 years of living in this area. The newly paved Shortridge Road between Washington and East 10th Streets went many months before any line markings were painted – just a broad expanse of unmarked new pavement. This is in Warren Township; unless it has changed, this is one of the higher taxed townships in Marion County. The deplorable condition of long-closed Eastgate Mall, which now houses the IMPD community east, the Crime Watch Divison and part of the Prosecutor’s Office, lowers property values in the area. It also does not instill a feeling of confidence in these public services which I consider to be a form of government personal infrastructure. As an aside, since Ballard took office it is no longer possible to contact IMPD community east (and I assume other areas) on line and reporting neighborhood problems – including infrastructure – is an involved on line process.

    But; as that old adage states, “Dogs bark but the caravan moves on.” This being the GOP obstructionist caravan which AGAIN tried and failed to repeal the ACA…for the 56th time. This is certainly a bit of American history to be proud of – think it will be included in future history books?

  2. I am retired now. I have done some Volunteer work which involved driving around Indianapolis. I must echo Jo Ann’s comments about the conditions of our Streets and Roads. Drive away from Down Town and the roads are pot holed and cracked. We do not even seem to have the money to pay for Lane Markers. If you are stuck in traffic under a bridge you will observe concrete cracked exposing rusty steel reinforcement rods. The usual method of repair is to pour some cheap Brand X fill in the hole, which does not really repair the underlying reason for the pothole. Indianapolis reminds me of the series “After Man” where humans suddenly disappear and the infrastructure begins to fall apart, because there are no humans to keep up the maintenance.

    Trash is strewn about the streets with no signs at all of City Workers trying to clean it up. Our Elected Officials here in Marion County have long since abrogated their responsibilities to the 99%. Parks, Public Transportation, Streets and Roads are starved for funds. When the Pacers, Colts or the IMS needs tax dollars there is never a shortage of tax dollars for the 1%.

    Bottom line I think our Mayor and the City Council are total Zeros.

  3. It’s interesting to consider the emergence of some 3rd world countries like China and VietNam. They are investing heavily in their infrastructure (perhaps taking a lesson from the US) and at the same time our congress and state legislatures are arguing that we can’t afford to maintain our infrastructure. There is obviously something wrong.

    The opponents of spending on maintaining the country’s skeleton use the argument that we are saddling our future generation with this enormous debt. If we don’t step up now and do what needs to be done by responsible budgeting and spending, aren’t we saddling them with the same debt and only postponing the inevitable – perhaps with more serious consequences – think bridge collapse or blackouts or loss of potable water?

    I have said that the accountant mentality – i.e. that doesn’t know the difference between spending and investing – is blind and leads nowhere. There are however many proponents that argue passionately against any government spending and are willing to sacrifice some short-term political points for the long-term decline in our standard of living.

  4. Thank you Prof K. I also think it worth noting that while we spend only 1/4 as much as China and 1/2 as much as Europe on OUR infrastructure, we still find the money to spend MORE than the rest of the world on the Military Industrial Complex. Our leaders always find the money for the killing machine. They even find money for machines the military leaders say the do not want. Something very sad about this whole thing.

  5. Hunter/gatherers need no infrastructure. The only life that has moved beyond, homo sapiens plus the animals that chose domestication, made that progress by realizing that physical and mental (specialization and learning) infrastructure are investments beneficial long after their realization.

    Familiarization has bred contempt for those lessons. So now those who celebrate that big picture progress are at odds with those only cognizant of the here and now.

    Nature will require of those who neglect those lessons relearning them.

    It would be so much less traumatic to achieve the relearning cognitively rather than through repeating the trial and error process that tought us the first time.

    Can we teach them or must we allow the trial and error process is the fundamental question of parenting.

    Now, it appears that liberals are parenting conservatives.

    Can we do that effectively?

  6. Pete; “there are none so blind as those who WILL NOT see” is the only response I have to your question.

  7. JoAnn, we can teach the blind how to operate within their handicap. Or we can let them learn by running into things. Perfect analogy.

  8. You get what you pay for. . .or don’t pay for. My state suffers from similar infrastructure decline and neglect, all while the current governor is the richest elected official anywhere. Think about that when you stop to fill up at his family’s Pilot and Flying J oil companies. The J stands for his brother Jimmy, owner of the Cleveland Browns. Google referred to Jimmy Haslam as ‘the dented-can store Jerry Jones’.

  9. People who frequent here know that my mind wanders between in and out of the box.

    We typically put “infrastructure” into a confining hardware box for roads and bridges and the like. What if we expand that to all hardware and software of such general utility that everyone thinking clearly does not mind sharing the cost of it as they’re pretty sure during normal life to benefit from it. And that utility is not temporary but long lasting. And that cost is not only financial but societal.

    Now does the word “infrastructures” include culture, all government, and all of the socialistic part of our economy (about a quarter of the U.S. Economy)?

  10. Intellectual infrastructure must also see continuing investment to supply the educators, inventors, designers, builders, health providers, skilled craftsmen and laborers, farmers, investors, etc. who make all the other advancements possible.

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