Our Third-World Country

It has come to this: the Mexican government has issued a statement to its citizens planning to travel in the United States, warning them to avoid drinking tap water.

I think it was Eric Hoffer who said the measure of a civilization is not what it builds, but what it maintains. We look back at the Romans with considerable awe, not just because they built roads and aqueducts, but because they kept those elements of their infrastructure operational for such a long period of time.

America could take some pointers.

In the wake of Flint’s water crisis, there has been a renewed attention to the country’s scandalous neglect of our aging infrastructure. A recent article from the Brookings Institution points to the magnitude of the problem:

A combination of factors, of course, have contributed to Flint’s crisis—including lapses in state monitoring—but the aging and deteriorating condition of the city’s water infrastructure plays an enormous role.

Similar to many older industrial cities in the Midwest, Flint has struggled to pay for needed maintenance on pipes and other facilities, which not only buckle under time and pressure in the form of widespread leaks, but also result in higher costs and declining water quality. Typically out of sight and out of mind, many pipes are more than a century old and are expected to need $1 trillion in repairs nationally over the next 25 years alone. With more than 51,000 community water systems scattered across the country and the federal government responsible for under one-quarter of all public spending on water infrastructure, states and localities must coordinate and cover most of these costs.

Infrastructure isn’t sexy. But it is essential; when you cannot flush your toilet, when clean, safe drinking water doesn’t come out of your tap, the effects on the economy and the quality of life are immediate and dire.

One of the great missed opportunities of the past decade was Congressional refusal to address the Great Recession with a program to repair America’s infrastructure. As the President pointed out at the time, such an initiative would not only have put millions of people to work, the depressed interest rates would have allowed us to do the work at a considerable savings.

Evidently, opposing anything and everything Obama proposed was more important than safe water and bridges.

The rest of the world has noticed.


  1. Too many of these problems can be traced back to decades of ignored pollution; which is maintained and approved by elected officials who allow big business to continue polluting rather than spend money necessary to clean up their act…and our environment. People’s lives only matter to those who become ill or lose a loved one to diseases that can be traced to hazardous waste in our environment in many forms.

    Sewers are one element of our infrastructure to cite as an example; the collapsing sections allow waste products to seep into the ground and ground water becomes hazardous, rises to the surface, absorbed by plant life and cloud formations which carry it far and wide to come back to earth in the form of rain. Grazing animals eat the polluted grass, are slaughtered and fed to us containing hazardous wastes – not to mention the chemicals deliberately added to their feed to speed growth. It seeps into drinking water supplies and private wells and is directly ingested by all of us. We are now seeing this in Indiana, only brought to light by the situation in Flint, MI, there is also the cancer cluster south of Marion County which has been swept under the rug. This is simple science; learned decades ago in most school systems. Not found in the Bible or taught in Sunday School lessons; nor will you hear it preached in sermons in any church, temple, synagogue or mosque. But our deeply religious leader here and the legislature continues to support the businesses causing the pollution and the businesses and government continues to charge us for doing nothing. (Much like the thousands of dollars in annual deductibles on health care plans resulting the “insured” paying their monthly premium and all medical bills.)

    In the end; maintenance of everything (including our health) is cheaper than rebuilding and/or replacing it later. We pay sewer usage bills monthly with our water bills here; supposedly also paying for maintenance on city sewers. We pay a second time through our property taxes for these same sewers; again supposedly paying for maintenance and repair. They keep raising these payments but the infrastructure in all forms continues to deteriorate. The old “vicious circle” situation leading again to FOLLOW THE MONEY!

  2. While there seems to be a never ending drive to build “bigger and better” I have yet to see such a drive to establish “maintenance” of what is built as part of the planning process for any endeavor. This lack of foresight is evident everywhere in our country, not just with the water pipes under Flint. And it is not only the physical aspects of our world, but also the systems (government, institutions, industries) that we depend on in our everyday lives. Only when there is a crisis do we look at the lack of foresight, and then we first place blame on some luckless bastard followed by collectively dodging responsibility for correcting the problem and changing our ways. Face it, folks. We are our own worst enemy.

  3. Thanks for a good one Prof K. This line says it all for me:
    “Evidently, opposing anything and everything Obama proposed was more important than safe water and bridges.”
    “The rest of the world has noticed.”
    True and sad.
    Time to move on from the Tea Party Crazies.
    But HOW can we get there?

  4. Instead of maintaining our infrastructure (or doing a dozen other useful things), Republican governors such as our own Mike Pence, choose to cut taxes. The tiny amounts rebated to taxpayers are barely noticeable. However, our crumbling roads and bridges, schools falling into disrepair, etc., are visible and harmful.

  5. Those who seek to make government small enough to drown in a bathtub would suggest that, since government didn’t do what it was supposed to do, these things should be privatized. The fact that they were in charge when, and in fact were directly responsible for, the failure of government doesn’t matter to them. They will sell government responsibilities to their friendly local corporations. This essentially leaves the well being of this country sacrificed to the bottom line. The business of business is to make money, after all.

  6. Here’s a letter to the editor that I recently submitted.

    “One modern myth that’s been disproved by history is that conservatism is about economic responsibility. What’s been clearly demonstrated instead is that it’s about a pessimism so profound as to discourage investment in a better future.”

    “In America now this pessimism is the result of broadcast fear and loathing as political brand marketing.”

    “Turn off TV and live free, informed and unafraid.”

    I believe that many if not most conservatives believe their faith to be based on a heightened sense of economic responsibility but results have shown conservatism absolutely not to be an effective way to manage money.

    Due diligence is more about investing than expense cutting and conservatism is all about expense cutting with no thought given to investing.

    It’s economic irresponsibility.

  7. I think Obama got the approval for money for infrastructure. It just turned out they spent it for something else. There were no shovel ready projects- They would rather approve a high speed rail from LA to where ever. I do believe the democrats were the majority in the house and senate when this was going down. Don’t make it political- you had the power.

  8. Excellent comment JoAnn. We have millions of dollars every year in taxes diverted to the Colts ans Pacers. The McMega-Media and our local Republicrat Party will proudly and with out questioning the wisdom and yes morality of the this diversion in taxes from the 99% to the 1% continue to enable this theft.

  9. Sharon

    Good info on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act:


    “The impact of the stimulus has been subject to debate since its inception. Studies on its impact have produced a range of conclusions from strongly positive to strongly harmful and any range of in between.”

    Republicans have tried everything possible to portray President Obama as as incompetent as Bush/Cheney were, a huge stretch by any imagination.

    The fact is we were in a very deep hole and now we’re out. I’m sure that some recovery measure were more or less effective than others. That’s to be expected.

    But the package worked thanks to a President and Congress that worked.

    When the Republicans took over and shut down Congress forcing the President to having to rely solely on Executive actions we were robbed of our government.

    We all hope recovery is on the way.

  10. The last sentence of Sheila’s piece, “The rest of the world has noticed.”, might be an even bigger problem than all of the other ones so well detailed by both her and all of you combined. The world is looking at us very carefully right now. We are making our traditional allies very nervous and our fair-weather allies even more so, so much that they might jump ship on us and run with someone else, perhaps China. Our enemies, both real and potential, also see us as coming apart at the seams in all sorts of ways since they observe this spectacle as it plays out in front of them every day thanks to television and Internet news feeds just like we do and everyone else does. Those here that have tried to gain political sway by convincing us that we are in decline so that they can gain the upper have not only done a job on all of us but on all of them as well. We are seen as being weak, our politics and governmental institutions being gridlocked and unworkable, and our leadership as being amateurish.

    The time is ripe for a serious miscalculation by either them or us that could send us down an even more perilous road where what we are all discussing now will seem like very small potatoes in comparison. So far all of this has been kept at bay since among serious analysts and other observers that have the ears of national leaders deep in their centers of power we are still seen as a mighty nation but as we continue down this current road toward even greater incoherence that we are on even they will question their judgments at some point and when that happens all bets will be off. It might not be next week, next month, or next year but it will eventually happen unless something is done to stop this “thing”.

    We are running a grave risk as several of the few remaining foreign policy “wise men” have tried to convey over the last decade or so. Unfortunately, they are very old and getting older every day and soon they will all be gone. Also unfortunately, much of their sage advise has fallen on deaf ears, particularly on those of exceedingly bright ultra-conservative talking point laden Senators that have actually stated that they are perplexed that we haven’t yet used our nuclear triad as a tool of our foreign policy. When those remaining “wise men” and “wise women” ultimately disappear as they most surely will and are replaced by the likes of people like John Bolton, or worse, it will be too late for us.

    As bad as the malfeasance regarding water quality in Flint, Michigan is right now and it is indeed horrific, there are other items of interest that can be far more grave in their ultimate consequences. The most serious of them of all are being treated by far too many of our “lawmakers” right now in the same cavalier unprincipled fashion. The dangers inherent in this lackadaisical approach to the most serious of all governmental responsibilities are things that in reality only a lunatic would actually want yet crowds cheer when political candidates are foolish enough to utter them as a worthwhile outcome. Those fear mongering spin doctors have done their jobs very well, far too well.

  11. Tom Lund; wise words. I will always believe 9/11 happened because the leaders of this country for years believed no one would have the nerve to attack us on our home ground. As a nation we ignored Timothy McVey’s home-grown terrorism attack and the first foreign terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. We were more “together” before 9/11 than we are today due to the partisanship dividing the nation today; a Cold Civil War.

    “The dangers inherent in this lackadaisical approach to the most serious of all governmental responsibilities are things that in reality only a lunatic would actually want yet crowds cheer when political candidates are foolish enough to utter them as a worthwhile outcome.”

    Those words say it all.

  12. Tom, you’re right. Our President is truly the leader of the free world, an extraordinary responsibility. Putting an unqualified person in that position threatens the stability of the entire world.

    In addition that same earth has been put into a grave situation by our disposing of fossil fuel waste into the common atmosphere. That gives us a binary choice: either completely change our entire energy system or adapt civilization to an entirely different climate and weather different than what we built our existing civilization in accord with. Tremendous pressure on every country will surely come whether we want it or not. Oh by the way: Republicans following Reagan’s advice that government has no solutions say let’s just hope that politicians know more about the universe than scientists do.

    I’m listening to the Republican debate and what I’ve heard so far is that they want to solve these problems by a return to colonialism. Empire building. Conquer the Middle East and, the world assumes, convert all Muslims to Christianity.

    A nuclear armed radical as President of the US is a danger to the entire future.

  13. At an enormous cost and at great inconvenience to the public, the United Kingdom had found to its chagrine that ignored infrastructure maintenance is a problem. Nothing was done about deteriorating subway systems in London and nationwide for decades after WW2 and despite GBP millions being spent annually and privatisation of the mainline railway system 20 yes ago, repairs are inconvenient, ongoing and a drag on the economy. EVERY weekend for the foreseeable future there are portions of the line shut down for maintenance/ renewal at great inconvenience to the travelling public/tourists/industry and costings greatly added to by overtime and added expenses due to rail replacement bus services to bypass the said work on the railway. It extends travel time and adds costs to industry by wating transit time and clogs already busy road networks due to trucks being used to avoid delays on the railway and private car use to do the same. You ignore infrastructural upgrading at your peril.

  14. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were true, but that article is satire. The correct translation of the Spanish statement is “Don’t drink it. It looks like s*** and you’re going to die.” Not exactly something a government would actually say as a warning to its citizens….

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