Let’s Talk About Infrastructure

What is government for?

That is the question at the root of all political philosophy, and by extension, all punditry. After all, the way we evaluate how well a government is functioning is by comparing its operation with its mission: is the state doing what it is supposed to be doing? If so, how well?

I began my most recent book by cataloging the areas of “broken-ness” in American governance–what I (and most commenters to this blog) believe to be areas where our government is failing to perform. And that, of course, raised the question: what should government do? Why do humans need the collective mechanism we call government (at least, beyond restraining Leviathan, per Hobbes)?

My conclusion–with which, obviously, you all may differ–is that government is needed to provide necessary infrastructure–both physical and social.

The dictionary defines infrastructure as the “basic physical and organizational structures and facilities needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.”

Most of us are familiar with this definition in the context of physical infrastructure: roads, bridges, sewers, the electrical grid, public transportation, etc. Within the category of physical infrastructure I’d also include physical amenities like parks and bike lanes. Schools, libraries and museums probably fall somewhere between physical and social infrastructure. Purely social infrastructure includes laws that prevent the strong from preying on the weak, and the various programs that make up what we call the social safety net.

I have just returned from Europe where I attended a conference in Stockholm; on the way home, I stopped in Amsterdam to see my middle son, who now lives there. Sweden and the Netherlands vastly eclipse the U.S. when it comes to both kinds of infrastructure.

The academic conference I attended was on “Social Citizenship,” a concept commonplace in Europe and utterly foreign to Americans. (The conference was focused upon the effects of significantly increased migration on the social unity fostered by the European approach to social welfare–tribalism isn’t restricted to the U.S.and Europe is far more diverse than it was even a decade ago.)

Social citizenship and policies that support unity are topics that increasingly intrigue me; my most recent book focused on them and I routinely blog about them. But right now, I want to rant about physical infrastructure.

I took the subway in both Stockholm and Amsterdam (In Amsterdam, I rode their interconnected transit system, which includes trams, subway and buses). In both cities, the subway stations were immaculate, and there was lots of public art. Electronic signs informed passengers when the next train was due–usually, within 4-5 minutes. The cars themselves–and in Amsterdam, the trams–were shiny and clean, and looked new–although in Amsterdam, my son said they were several years old, and simply well-maintained.

Well-maintained. What a concept…

It wasn’t only public transportation. Streets and sidewalks looked equally well-tended; in Amsterdam, according to my son, sidewalks throughout the city are replaced every 30 years. Also in Amsterdam, where there are 1.3 bicycles for every resident and absolutely everyone bikes, protected bike lanes are everywhere–usually, they separate the sidewalks from the roadways.

Thanks to robust public transportation and the culture of biking, there were far fewer cars on the streets than there are here, and among those that were I saw numerous hybrids. Efforts to use clean energy were prominent. (Coincidentally, a friend just sent me an article about a European consortium that plans to deploy 1,000 fuel cell buses in European cities, and to provide the necessary hydrogen infrastructure.)

All in all, the clear impression was that we are a community, and we care. 

In these European cities, government’s approach to infrastructure provision appears to be a collective effort to ensure a workable, efficient and pleasant environment for all citizens–not a grudging and slapdash accommodation for those who cannot afford private vehicles.

I’m jealous.


  1. We are well aware Indiana will never rise to the heights of any and all infrastructure as Sheila saw in Amsterdam and Stockholm…what are conditions in other states with this regard? Bike lanes were added to East 10th Street between Shortridge Road and Arlington Avenue; they start and stop on both sides of the street with signs warning drivers bikes have the right away in traffic lanes where bike lanes end suddenly…on both sides. I have been driving that area for 14 years and have seen 2 bicycle riders so far. I also have NOT seen bike lanes anywhere else in this area.

    Should utilities be included in infrastructure; sewers, overhead lines and waterlines run through and under streets and sidewalks and onto our property. Downtown Indianapolis has had numerous electrical eruptions downtown, blowing manhole covers into the air and water lines have burst, flooding streets and causing detours and expensive street and sidewalk repair. Fortunately; no one has been killed…yet. Gas, water and electric companies are monopolies so we are given no choice regarding their decisions to increase rates or make changes such as the repeated ads residents receive for insurance coverage of those lines, sewers and water lines becoming our financial responsibility. Indianapolis Power & Light is trying to take possession of privately owned solar panels and/or their stored energy. The many tentacled issue of infrastructure cannot be avoided by any resident anywhere in this country.

    General street conditions in all suburbs; aside from our pot hole problems, have been neglected for too long to be repaired and most need replacement due to lack of ongoing maintenance. Some areas have actually caused blown tires, vehicle damage and costly repairs. Take a drive through the wealthier areas of this city then drive through middle-income and low-income areas and be sure to “fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride!”

    “Well-maintained. What a concept…”

    The proliferation of churches throughout this city with tax exempt status, and now benefiting from school vouchers paid for out of public education budget, are a drain on the infrastructure budget. The tax incentives to bring new business to town and costly tax abatements to keep old business from leaving are another drain on residents. A few months ago I received a flyer in the mail from Republican State Senator Michael Crider with a breakdown of Indiana’s new 2-year budget. Infrastructure is not listed in his pie chart; I assume it could be part of the 2% under “Other”.

    “Well maintained. What a concept…”

  2. Probably apocryphal, but a number of years ago I heard a story about an overheard conversation among a European family touring New York City. It was apparent that they were showing their children around the city when the father turned to his children and said “this is what our country looked like right after the war.”

  3. Privatization is the cause of the conditions Jo Ann described. People think it is cheaper to have necessary services run by contractors than by municipal employees, but that is a myth. POGO did a comparison about a dozen years ago, and found that because of the overhead costs charged by the contractors, the costs to run infrastructure can be twice what it cost to have government employees doing the job.

  4. It’s interesting that David mentioned the war, in this case WWII. So much of the existing infrastructure of European cities was demolished, it was necessary to essentially begin again. With help from the Marshall Plan, Europe built itself anew. Meanwhile, back at the ranch (the good old US of A), GM was God. It was determined and spoken aloud by Charles Wilson, who was Secretary of Defense under Ike, after being CEO of GM. Mass transit was trashed and the interstate system was built. I don’t know if Indianapolis ever got the twenty five cents that was it’s share of the anti-trust verdict against GM, but I do know it couldn’t begin to make up for the loss of our early twentieth century transit system, which could take you from Carmel to Martinsville and get you there on time.

    A city like Indianapolis is behind the eight ball from the get go, because so much government property, which is essentially untaxable, is located right downtown. So you can’t tax the churches and you can’t tax the government properties and much of your housing is old and run-down, what do you do? Under uni-gov Indy began the practice of giving tax credits to companies that built downtown, so they get twenty years of tax abatements and now you can’t tax the businesses either.

    All of this is so stupid, you wonder how it could have happened. Trust me, it was all so Republican, it flowed like water from the pens of our leaders.

  5. Neoliberalism has been the boon in the USA since Ronald Reagan. The only “infrastructure” we have expanded is MIC and the surveillance state. We don’t spend money because the millionaires and corporations don’t want to spend money on taxes. There is no incentive for them to boost our government sector.

    Since we are an Oligarchy, and most public officials are all owned/controlled by the Oligarchy, our government appeases the Oligarchy. Where Sheila visited, bribing public officials is a crime. The government works for the people. We haven’t seen that for over thirty years — the people be damned.


  6. We have sub-standard number public parks, sub-standard mass transit system, potholed streets, and broken sidewalks. However, we have more than enough tax dollars to build sports stadiums, maintain them, for Mega-Billionaire owners.

  7. Yes, Todd. We are pretty much a fascist state. Books like “Dark Money”, “Shock Doctrine” and “No is not Enough” have pretty much warned us of the current decrepit state of our nation since 2007.

    But, as you say, the idea of Republican politics and the backward thrust of Reaganomics, aka “trickle down” economics added to the legal bribery law inspired by Citizens United v. FEC have done the trick. The CEO limos don’t feel the potholes, they don’t send their children to public schools and they are insulated from the vast majority of us who depend on the infrastructure to live decent lives.

    Well done, voters…and the voters not engaged. You are responsible. You have kicked open the gate to the henhouses and the foxes continue to stream in and out slaughtering the chickens of society. Will the final outcome become a spectator sport for the rest of the world as they watch our foxes eat each other? That’s what unregulated capitalism leads to. Marx predicted it in the mid-19th century.

  8. Folks – let’s channel anger, frustration and, above all, time and energy into turning the American Democracy Titanic. Yes, it is a big ship and will take many years to clip just the side of the berg, but it will have been worth it.

    If you believe people are inherently evil and selfish….stop reading. If you at least half believe the opposite, than help elect servant leaders everywhere and quit daydreaming about revolution.

  9. JoAnn, Todd and Monotonous make good points in re the price ordinary citizens pay for inaction by those who govern. The real problem is political. Thus the Chinese have bullet trains while we talk about them. Our chuckholes, unknown in civilized countries, have chuckholes etc., yet we are told by such as the WSJ and others that we are the richest country in the world. Really? If so, such wealth must be hidden from view in stocks, bonds, real estate and numbered accounts in Zurich – it is not evident here – quite the contrary. Indeed an argument can be made that (depending upon the social measurement) we are among the poorest countries in the world. As I have argued elsewhere, the problem is not total wealth but rather its equitable distribution, an argument always attacked by the superrich as “socialist,” whatever that means. (See contra: Sweden, Holland, France et al). To reiterate, the reason we have wage inequality and maldistribution of our wealth among class is political, and it is not necessarily a Democratic vs. Republican matter. Greed knows no such boundaries, though Republicans have a big majority among such greedhogs.

    I happen to have spent the last week on Long Island and New York City, the center of greed with its stock exchange and big banks. I stood on Times Square on 9-11 and thought not of stocks and bonds and fraudulent mortgage packages that accompanied that debacle but rather the sobering and existentialist notion of how and whether we are going to survive the current political brew of ignorance, terminal capitalism, and pathology in high places. Having no history of such a unique set of circumstances from which to speculate on a logical outcome but recognizing that the problem is political, it is clear to me that we have to change politicians, and while that may or may not solve the problem, it can’t be worse than what we have now. So, hardly to coin a phrase, vote.

  10. Wikipedia adds to it’s article about infrastructure the following:

    “There are two general types of ways to view infrastructure, hard or soft. Hard infrastructure refers to the physical networks necessary for the functioning of a modern industry.[4] This includes roads, bridges, railways, etc. Soft infrastructure refers to all the institutions that maintain the economic, health, social, and cultural standards of a country.[4] This includes educational programs, official statistics, parks and recreational facilities, law enforcement agencies, and emergency services.”

    My observation is that both are in bad shape since entertainment media has played a dominant role in educating Americans.

    Why? Capitalism is a benefit and a curse. When limited to markets that are naturally competitive, when properly regulated to protect all stakeholders (consumers, workers, the environment, suppliers, the public, the government, investors) from make more money now regardless of the impact an any others ever, when operated under a progressive taxation system to distribute back to the wealth creators, workers, wealth that it redistributes up, and when natural resources are valued as limited and serving all humans both now and in the future, it can be tamed into much social benefit. Jobs and goods and services. However all of that soft infrastructure needs to be maintained and tended to constantly by government because capitalists are always nurturing holes in all of those limitations.

    Advertising/propaganda/fake news/brainwashing has been effectively deployed by capitalists on pervasive entertainment media networks to compromise the soft infrastructure that allows them access to wealth only under the constraints listed above.

    Something has to go. Either just the bath water or the contents as well. We know, or at least used to, how to keep the benefit and manage the risks. We need non capitalists to manage the soft infrastructure that maintains viable capitalism.

  11. Just touching on Todd’s point of view for a moment, one reason why the Roman government lasted as long as it has, they knew how to at least make an effort and possibly even delude their citizens. They put massive amounts of treasure into infrastructure, they also enjoyed the expansive circuses, so much so, that even to this day, the British and American, you could call it, Empire are directly related to the Roman empire. And for that matter, so was Germany.

    There is a connection with that thought process, as Todd put it, an oligarchy, the elite, the influential and wealthy, control government. The religious iconoclasts are also part of this realm. The Catholic Church is child of Rome, the Church of England echoed papist ideals and adopted certain dogma from the Protestant Reformation. These churches were connected and still are connected to the extreme elite that has existed through millennia.

    Remember, the Church of Rome is basically their own city state, the Vatican. The political wing of Rome settled in the Austrian house of Habsburg, which ruled the Holy Roman Empire. This is where Adolf Hitler acquired his 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Reich beliefs. The 1st Reich was Rome, the 2nd Reich was Habsburg including the German Empire until 1918, the 3rd Reich was the Nazis.

    It no secret that the Germans were infatuated with “American Manifest Destiny” and eugenics which was developed by the British and Americans. Too bad, citizens of these countries, which are offshoots of the Roman Empire, have blindly allowed these ruling class elites to blindly control them, and pacify them, pitting classes and castes of people against each other. A classic case of misdirection? A misdirection that has lasted for over 2000 years? Our political system is based on the original father (Romans) of our institutions and beliefs. Even the symbols above and next to the Speakers chair in Congress are symbols of Roman rule and law. These bundles are called “Fasces” which incidentally but not surprisingly were used by the German and Nazi fascists. See the connection?

    Until this is rooted out, which probably will never happen, this kind of slavery to the elite will continue until we extinguish ourselves on this planet.

  12. When South Carolina’s previous governor, Nikki Haley, was told by recently arrived big businesses (lured to the state by low wages, generous tax credits and promises of no unions – ever) that they would leave if the state didn’t start working on its infrastructure problems, she called their bluff. She spoke softly, but refused to commit to any action. That is where things still stand as we grow more and more infrastructure decrepit (I95 was closed for a week during flooding a couple of years ago).

    This year the state found itself $61 million richer when a citizen paid taxes on one of the biggest lottery jackpots in history. Instead of new schools, roads, bridges or flood prevention in coastal cities, the legislature decided to spend that money by mailing a $50 check to every tax paying resident of the state. That will presumably purchase the affection of voters (we sell out cheap) but ignores the vast needs that drive us into third-world status. South Carolina is fully supportive of giving money to the wealthy, but ignores opportunities to create conditions that could make them even richer. Occasionally a new road gets built when a legislator is persuaded to support it by promising him his name will be attached to it.

    There is little at which this state excels, but it stands near the top of those incapable of accurately identifying their own self-interest.

  13. Sheila supports public transportation, and commented yesterday about the Childrens’ Museum’s plan for tearing down an old apartment house as being an example of not supportive of Red Line. However, did you consider the fact that the areas in Indianapolis that most need public transportation because people have no other means of transportation, were bypassed so that a rapid transit bus could be put in Meridian-Kessler and Broad Ripple, where it is least-needed? Did you wonder why this is the case?

    The areas of Indianapolis where people depend on public transportation are east and west along Washington Street and adjacent neighborhoods north and south along Washington. You will see completely full buses during the daytime, and numerous people waiting at each stop, so why Broad Ripple? Why tear up College Avenue to stick bus stations in the middle of a busy street and take away parking and restrict cross traffic and left turns, thus backing up east-west streets? Why have the Blue and Purple Lines, that are supposedly planned to benefit those east and west siders who depend on public transportation, been pushed back for several years?

    The answer: to protect the investments of certain developers who own property on College Avenue, and who want to qualify for government grants and tax abatements, using the argument that there is a bus rapid transit line present, as part of Agenda 2020. I’m not assuming this. A member of the CC Council asked why not curbside pick up, and they were told that putting the stations in the street was to delay shutting down Red Line if it flops and diverting the buses to other lines, and the reason was to protect the investments of certain developers.

    I have lived on College for 40 years. Buses used to be mostly empty except during rush hour, so I know from personal observation that the demand for bus transportation is simply not there in Broad Ripple and Meridian-Kessler. Already we are seeing empty Red Line buses at times, even though riding is completely free through September. However, the urbanism fanatics repeat the mantra: “if we build it, people will come”. Even if someone wanted to ride a bus, if they had mobility issues, there are fewer stops than the old College bus, so you’d have to walk further unless you lived right next to a stop. That is impractical when you need to get groceries, have little kids in tow, or when the weather is bad.

    Red Line is simply another example of the deference of City government to developers over and above the needs of residents. An investment in public transportation should be a no-brainer: where is the need and how best to meet it? Indy Go has the data to answer these questions, but developers and protecting their investments are the priority. Tell me: is there any building constructed in or near Downtown in the last few years that didn’t receive taxpayer help in the form of tax abatements, TIF funds, grants, relaxation of zoning, training grants or some other assistance? Have private property owners successfully fought off developers recently? How does any of this taxpayer help benefit those of us who do pay taxes, and why aren’t our needs and wishes the priority?

  14. Natacha; thank you, thank you, thank you!!! You said what I have tried to get across to those supporting the Red Line as progress; it is basically one line north to south through the middle of Indianapolis, how will outlying riders get to that one line? Will they drive and park to take advantage of this “new-age” public transportation; if so, where will they park? it also runs primarily through the higher income areas to downtown. The express bus line years ago stopped pickups at 46th and Arlington; the riders using the line parked in shopping center parking lots all day which brought complaints from store owners. As you stated; the areas in this city most needing public transportation in their areas are still waiting for ways to get to jobs and many need them for doctor appointments, to do all shopping, including groceries.

    This first year of the Red Line is providing free service; what will rides cost at the end of the year on these electric powered buses on that one line through the middle of the city? Electric power IS a step forward regarding less fossil fuel use and air pollution but once the free rides end, who will be using this mode of transportation other than those within walking distance who can afford to ride? Someone today mentioned this city has never provided decent public transportation; when I was growing up in the 1940s and through my working years during the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, bus service was in all areas until urban sprawl began and suburbs spread to county lines. Progress does not always mean improvement!

  15. Natacha, excellent, excellent analysis of the Red Line, just one more example of Corporate Welfare in Indianapolis. The local Oligarchy has both Major Political Parties in their back pockets. The idea that we have two major political parties in Indianapolis, when it comes to looking after us Proles is bogus. We have a Republicrat Party here in Marion County.

  16. I always have to remind myself that most European countries, especially in the north, are the size and population of many of our states in these United (?) States. Our grand experiment that proved to be so divided and fractious that we fought a Civil War, costing a generation of potential good and productive benefits to the future, is in mortal jeopardy.
    What if we did have boundaries of population and space that were inviolable? Would the result be better than what we have now?
    The wealthy and powerful, better educated with white privilege, started the whole enterprise with every intention of maintaining their positions. As has proven to be true over and over in world history, governments exist through the will of the governed. Sooner or later, if that will is thwarted often and harshly enough, the governed force change down the throats of the powerful wealthy. It is usually very bloody and can last for decades, even centuries.
    Unfortunately, there have always been those among us who out of an absence of morals or empathy for others, willingly use whatever weapons the powerful provide to suppress the governed who are forcing change by action.
    IMO, this current situation will continue to deteriorate as the degradation of our earthly home continues to be looted and polluted by those same greed-driven powers that are ultimately going to down with the rest of us, even though they believe that they can survive without us.

  17. “What is government for?” “…the areas of “broken-ness” in American governance–what I (and most commenters to this blog) believe to be areas where our government is failing to perform. And that, of course, raised the question: what should government do? Why do humans need the collective mechanism we call government…”

    The above quotes and comments today, take me back a few days to the blog regarding “epigenetics” Stealing some quotes from Stephen King’s new book made the connection for me; we are all in a “cognitive box”, “It might even be tribal.” Paraphrased here, “If we do it for them, we might have to do it for others.” This is regarding physical and social infrastructure and survival of more than the fittest.

    Back to today’s blog, “My conclusion–with which, obviously, you all may differ–is that government is needed to provide necessary infrastructure–both physical and social.”

    If not government; WHO? I doubt anyone on this blog will disagree that the current government is beyond broken; it has stopped providing both physical and social infrastructure needs for all Americans…including their own constituents…other than the vastly wealthy who are getting wealthier by the hour as we struggle to see a future for even ourselves in the current chaos. The country is quickly becoming a “single corporation” and I have forgotten who coined that term but like President Obama’s “circular firing squad”, it now appears that the only survivors possible will be the wealthy. We need the “collective mechanism we call government” because we cannot do it alone; a fact we realize but the “single corporation” mind set cannot see there will be no surviving lower or middle class to maintain their “lifestyle of the rich and famous” and continue paying the taxes they refuse to pay when they complete their “deconstruction” of government, America and Americans.

    If any of you have been watching the “hearing” currently going on before the House you have seen the lack of social infrastructure in the Trump administration as well as the Democratic party seeking answers and we are all victims.

  18. Spending several days in Scotland has made me realize that maybe building roads too safe is giving people in the US the opportunity to text and drive at the same time. By making the roads narrow and curvy, a driver has no opportunity to be distracted while driving. By making the roads 50% wider, and flattening every hill, and making them dead straight, you really can text and dive most of the time and not get into trouble. Sometimes, I think we spend too much on car infrastructure at the detriment to everything else. Cities are for people, not cars, or trucks, or through traffic. The US has too much emphasis on cars as transportation to the exclusion over everything else, even the people living there. Thanks for giving a name to something I think should have always existed, “social citizenship”.

  19. The purpose of “government” is different than the purpose of “democratic government”. The purpose of democratic government is whatever the voters decide the purpose to be.

    Obviously, our government for a very,very long time has not delivered what the voters want government to do, and it appears that the voters accept that, regardless of the content of the voter’s complaints. That being the case, is strong proof that United States government is not a democratic government.

    That being the case, it is useless to examine issues such as the will to provide infrastructure. When you have no control, and the voters are slapped in the face with that fact every minute, the only issue worth discussing is control. Until we get control, until we stop the wealthy from dictating policy, nothing should occupy our collective mind other than establishing democratic government once and for all.

  20. Privatization is one major problem, as Pascal notes. To expand on this, I see the desire to monetize and narrowly define what counts (Exxon profits count, pollution and oil spills don’t) as part of this detrimental troika (monetize, profitize and privatize).

    I remember years back when the Government Printing Office would send you any government document at cost. Then there were complaints that the GPO was “depriving” people/corporations of their right to make a profit off of everything. So the GPO was supposed to act like a private, for profit corporation.

    In the public utility sector, electric companies used to give away light bulbs (one to one exchange) to encourage people to use those newfangled electric lights (from the early days). When I was growing up in Detroit, Detroit Edison still gave away light bulbs — until a pharmacist declared that this was restrain of trade – his business couldn’t possibly survive unless he could sell light bulbs – so no more free light bulbs.

    HIghways? Let the private sector build toll roads (better yet, as was mentioned) let the public build a sports stadium and the rich team owners pocket all of the revenue.

    I won’t go in to how “publish or perish” has become “patent or perish” in biomedical research – another bad trend –

    Take this mindset, short-termism, and the “we must cut taxes and then cut them again and again” attitude and we end up with our crumbling infrastructure, physical and social.

  21. Don’t you just love how our politicians tout the US as, “The Greatest Country In The World”? Nope. Not by a long shot.
    Those same politicians also love to look down their noses at “Big Bad Socialism.” Yet most of Western Europe bases its infrastructure on socialism and theirs run rings around ours.

    When I moved to Florida, there was great excitement about a light-rail train system to be built between Orlando and Florida. Then pRick [the P is silent] Scott was elected governor. The first thing he did was kill the rail at the behest of the Koch brothers. And that was that.
    The story goes that they called him on the carpet for the fact that the ring around Orlando was completed — even though it was more than half finished when he took office and, try as he might, he simply couldn’t kibosh the rest. But the city-connecting rail between the Disney parks, Epcott, NASA and Busch Gardens — which would have benefited the state’s primary industry — tourism — simply whimpered and died.

    Here in St. Petersburg, we have lovely bike lanes — and they are used. And we have trolleys and buses that run through much of the city — also used.
    1] Generally speaking, our city government tends toward the Democratic although the state itself tends Republican —
    2] but I’m not fooling myself into thinking that’s the major reason. Our clement weather is probably more responsible for our infrastructure.
    After all, bike riding and walking in Kansas City, where I came from, was extremely unpleasant for more than half the year when it was either far too cold or temperatures and humidity both hovered around 100 degrees/percent. No amount of liberal government would get people to ride bikes or even walk in that environment — so why invest in the infrastructure?
    And yes, the buses in KC were a joke. They served only the poorest areas on the Missouri side — and the Kansas section of Kansas City had none at all.

    And I can’t imagine what the weather must be like there, since I left. The temperatures in Florida have climbed dramatically during the past twelve years — and it was not only warmer here in the winter but cooler [and less humid] in the summer than it was in Kansas City when I left to come here.

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