Defining Infrastructure

A few days ago, Talking Points Memo ran a story about Republicans’ assault on Biden’s infrastructure bill. That bill is extremely popular, even with the GOP base, so the party’s determination to oppose it had to be something other than “hell no, don’t fill those chuckholes or reinforce the electrical grid…”

According to the story, they’ve chosen to defend their opposition by arguing that the bill improperly defines the term “infrastructure.”

“You look at this bill, the $2 trillion in the bill that, only about 5 to 7 percent of it is actual roads and bridges and ports and things that you and I would say is real infrastructure and that we tried to get passed under the last administration with President Trump,” former Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought said recently on Fox News radio. 

That statistic is particularly misleading, as it doesn’t count even things like rail and water systems — improvements that fall into the traditional infrastructure bucket. 

Republicans charge that expenditures for broadband and green energy, among other provisions of the bill, aren’t infrastructure.

That argument prompted me to look at some of the academic literature. It turns out that there aren’t many publications dealing with the definition of infrastructure, although there’s more than I ever imagined on the economics involved–the returns on investment, the pros and cons of “public-private partnerships,” and various aspects of construction. But there was some, and it was enlightening.

For example, a number of scholars use the term “social overhead capital.” It evidently grew out of  Samuelson’s theory of public goods; Samuelson understood infrastructure to be  investments by the state that are a precondition for the successful development of the private sector– the basic services without which primary, secondary and tertiary types of production activities cannot function.

In other words, infrastructure is a support system, a floor built by government, that allows businesses and individuals to be productive. That certainly includes roads, bridges, and other elements of our transportation requirements. It also includes technology we need in order to communicate–hence broadband–and the need to keep the lights on–hence the electrical grid. It rather obviously includes water and sewers.

But these days, what constitutes that supportive floor has also come to include social infrastructure–services as well as brick and mortar assets. Social infrastructure includes educational institutions, libraries, parks…It definitely includes police and fire protection, courts of law, garbage collection and other municipal services.  In saner countries, it includes healthcare and a menu of social services.

Effective government is a mechanism through which we provide a network of support that allows individual citizens to prosper. That network of support is Infrastructure and it isn’t  something the market can supply. Using government to provide foundational systems and services is simply the process of doing collectively what we cannot do individually. 

In that literature I consulted, there was ample evidence that physical infrastructure is required if business and the economy are to thrive, and a substantial amount of emerging evidence that social infrastructure is equally necessary to support and empower individuals and families.

Biden’s American Jobs Plan would invest $400 billion in the caregiving economy; $137 billion in schools, early learning centers, and community colleges; $111 billion in clean drinking water; and $621 billion in various transportation projects. All of those investments are part of a supportive network that will pay dividends by enabling more Americans to live productive lives.

That supportive network is certainly infrastructure.


  1. What if Democrats called the Republican’s bluff? Republicans in Congress continue to say they are for infrastructure, but Dems define it too broadly. They say they are for voting rights for everyone but, Dems have also included campaign and election reforms which aren’t voting rights. 

    Okay, why don’t Democrats say, tell us the parts of the infrastructure bill and the voting rights bill that you think are overreach or not germane. Then, repackage the bills into Infrastructure (Part A) and Voting Rights (Part A). If Republicans won’t officially identify their objections, Dems should do it based on various, on-record comments from Republican leaders.

    Now, bring the Part A bills to the floor for a vote and see how many votes they get or if Republicans filibuster them. 

    If they pass, it will at least be a starting point and Biden and Dems can claim victory — they compromised and got something done on two huge issues. Then begin working on Part B of both bills.

    If they don’t pass (I can almost guarantee that), Biden and Dems can expose the blatant hypocrisy of Republicans and their obstructionist agenda. They really don’t care about infrastructure or voting rights — they simply care about political power.

  2. The Republican opposition to Biden’s infrastructure plan has nothing to do with the definition of infrastructure or the amount of money involved. It is solely due to their determination to object to anything he proposes. They are looking for excuses to convince their base that voting next year for Republicans is the only way to save the country from economic disaster, hoping that their base is too dumb or shortsighted to realize that they are being conned again.

  3. “Defining Infrastructure”: I went to my Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, Third Edition, copyright 2008 for a basic definition: 1. An underlying base or foundation, esp., for an organization; 2. The basic facilities, equipment, and installations needed for the functioning of a system.

    “Republicans charge that expenditures for broadband and green energy, among other provisions of the bill, aren’t infrastructure.”

    Communication and energy sources in this 21st Century have greatly changed since FDR’s era of building roads and bridges to put people to work and improve life for all Americans and strengthen the functioning of the government which is, or should be, a functioning organization. Trump and McConnell deconstructed much of what worked during the past century and did their best to return us to 2 tin-cans and a string and 4-lane highways as all that was needed for them to run this country. If Biden’s infrastructure bill is popular even with the GOP base but “the party” is determined to oppose it; exactly what is the dividing line between the GOP and “the party”? With the slim majority of the Democratic party in the House and Senate; only half of our Legislature is actually working at this time. To quote Republican President Abraham Lincoln; “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

    “All of those investments are part of a supportive network that will pay dividends by enabling more Americans to live productive lives.”

    Republicans are “clutching at straws” by their argument as to what is and isn’t infrastructure to maintain their hold on stopping progress till they are again in power to increase their profits without seeing the eventual collapse of this nation without repairing and increasing the full scope of the infrastructure as it consists today. As the infrastructure goes, so goes the country.

  4. I’m sorry. I must have missed the big infrastructure bill that was brought to the floor of either the House or the Senate during the last administration. I do remember the clown climbing into the cab of a semi and blowing the horn and repeated “Infrastructure Weeks.” How did I miss the bill?

  5. The only argument against a Republican nowadays is, “You’re an idiot.”

    They are the most heavily propagandized through right-wing media. I saw polls showing that the GOP doesn’t support the bill or how Biden increases taxes on billionaires and corporations. Some of the opponents are still of the mindset that “taxes are theft.”

    Independents and democrats agreed on investing in infrastructure and increasing taxes on corporations who are not paying their fair share. Hopefully, this bill removes all the exemptions currently in place, allowing corporations to pay zero taxes. Then maybe they can add a feature whereby “nonprofits” also contribute toward our infrastructure and government services.

    From what I can tell, the Biden plan of “unity with the GOP” has already been tossed in the heap of other lofty ideas from his camp.

    I wonder how much is being siphoned toward the military in this bill since we are starting wars in Ukraine, the South Pacific, and the Middle East. It’s amazing how quickly all the politicians unify on spending when it comes to the military.

    Personally, when you see who the military benefits, that bill should be sent directly to the oligarchs and their corporations. Not a single civilian should pay for our Imperialistic army.

  6. I don’t know too many Republicans saying broadband is not infrastructure. Even electric vehicle charging stations is almost certainly infrastructure, thought the wisdom of government getting involved in this is debatable. (Government, after all, didn’t get involved in establishing gas stations when cars became prevalent in the early 1900s. The private sector rose up to meet the demand just fine.)

    A major part of the infrastructure bill is $400 billion for expanding Medicaid beneficiaries’ access to home- and community-based care for seniors and the disabled. Calling that “infrastructure” seems to be a dilution of the term. You reach the point where you’re just calling programs you think are good policy “infrastructure.”

    I think the debate over what is “infrastructure” is a needed debate. I don’t think most Republicans are as restrictive on the term as you suggest. But, of course, just because something is infrastructure doesn’t mean it’s a good idea – see electric charging stations above.

  7. Paul K. Ogden; I have to agree totally with your comments regarding “Medicaid for expanding Medicaid beneficiaries’ access to home- and community-based care for seniors and the disabled”. Being elderly and disabled, but disqualified for Medicaid, I can personally attest to Medicaid and Medicare expansion for access to home and community based care. Even those of us who own our homes, live alone, are self-sufficient and self-supporting on low income need assistance at times. Temporary assistance for transportation to medical appointments or after-care from hospitalization, access to reliable and reasonable repair and maintenance on our homes are sadly lacking but NOT part of the infrastructure.

    General use of the term “Republican” needs to be made specific; which Republicans are against President Biden’s infrastructure bill and why and which Republicans support it and why. In other words, who are members of the GOP base and who are members of “the party”?

  8. If we all wait for the “private sector” to rise up and meet the demands of this society hell will freeze over first.

  9. I’d love to take a deeper dive into this topic. Would you mind sharing your reading list?

  10. Does infrastructure include ‘physical infrastructure’, ‘social infrastructure’, ‘ political infrastructure’, and ‘economic infrastructure’? Perhaps other subsets of the above or additional fabrics of existence .
    The physical infrastructures are mostly visual and moderately obvious-transportation which includes rail and roadways, air travel, and waterway travel. Water uses both personal and commercial which include both the providing and necessary cleaning/recycling. Electrical and communication utilities which are difficult to separate, but critical to human survival. How would we survive w/o power and modern communication? Town cryers, return to manual recording of monetary transactions, cook over flames, no refrigeration, no source of water, no disposal of waste to name a few.
    Social infrastructure includes the health, education, social intercourse(neighbors/community/nation and others. Comment made about Medicaid not being part of the infrastruture; will we reinvest in’death wagons’? To qualify for Medicaid, the person gives up all worldly goods and the spouse gives up half of their worldly goods so that the poor soul can be dumped into a play where death is better than existence. Wonder what that does to the social fabric of the community. Have a long-term health event that is not chronic but expensive? Either die, suffer or sell worldly goods to pay for it. Medicare is not a pay all insurance-and corporate insurance policies have financial limits. Education beyond public schools has become outrageously expensive in which loans have stifled the economic advancement of young adults.
    Political infrastructure has been biased from fair representation of the populace to 35% of the voting population controls the other 65%. May sound ‘not necessarily bad’, but greed, corruption and consolidation of power to the super rich are creating a 19th Century economic social structure.
    The economic infrastructure is a very complex, international operation. Not sure how it works, but far different than 50 yrs ago when a local group of people(budding corporation) went to the local large bank for the loan/investment in the regional future. That bank no longer exists, it has been swallowed up into a far larger institution, possibly not based in the USA. Minor example, several yrs ago, we had paid off our home loan. The ‘paper’ had been sold 3 times in the 20 yrs. Searching for the deed, we finally found it in the possession of a Netherlands financial institution-took about 2 months. Our loan money was going into a US ‘middleman’-totally legitimate, but if we were to sell the house, we did not have the deed.

    Infrastructure is quite complex

  11. the tax cuts by state government have made the deciding factor in needs of our infrastructure today..too many loopholes have allowed the private sector to escape the demands of broadband. seriously,we here in NoDak have no broadband in areas where lives are dependent upon communication. like gas for a car or a online(almost demanded now) employment apps etc, we’ve allowed many of the republican led legislatures in those states to mearly walk away from responsibilities they were elected for,then passed laws allowing them to be unaccountable for the wreackage. the fact is, the states that lack, have made it a game of tax cuts and bids, to secure areas,where,many areas lack the population,hense a demand$.. instead of demanding these publically traded entities to secure the areas, they have used the pacs to get investors elected over making areas secure for the population. the broadband era started 20 years ago, we look like a third world nation as far as many euro countries. there should be a demand for full coverage by the U.S. the big gougers in telecommunications. no money from the taxpayers,,not a free hand out while we lack. imagine NORAD being set up to defend our nation with the likes of ATT and such as the investors..
    now comes the fun part,,, private roads,all of them..tolled…watch the games begin.

  12. Amy @ 10:06–I looked for my sources online, and didn’t retain them. Hopefully, some commentors can provide a reading list.

  13. Pascal is on to something and Paul would have profit-seeking private enterprise resistant to regulation in charge of our electrical fuel which, like roads (unless toll), should be a public matter. We don’t need another layer of profit between the citizenry and his/her/its use of the public way.

    Infrastructure, like “carried interest,” is what the Congress says it is, dictionary definitions to the contrary notwithstanding. Let’s not allow Republicans to use definitional Trojan Horses to stop or even slow our progress in bringing our country out of our current morass into the new day of Biden’s New Deal initiatives. We must spend money to make money, as the adage goes, and I’m sure Keynes would approve.

  14. Paul K. and JoAnn,

    You have a perfect right to debate what is and is not infrastructure. However, your comments indicate that you reject Sheila’s definition that ” All of those investments are part of a supportive network that will pay dividends by enabling more Americans to live productive lives.” If you accept the principle that the nation is better served by having as many people as possible living productive lives, then her definition is elemental. Private industry (aka capitalism) will not provide a foundation, so unless the government does so in the form of infrastructure services, it won’t get done.

    To me the most compelling need for a re- (non-FDR) definition is that of childcare. How many potentially productive Americans are excluded from the job market because the cost of competent child care prohibits them from seeking employment?

    As to whether the electrical grid should be included, I think we should seek testimony from the citizens of Texas who experienced the recent crashing of their electrical grid caused by snowstorms and insufficient preparation for inclement whether. Can localities prepare for the likelihood that the Russians will probe weaknesses in our infrastructure to increase their recent cyber aggression? Can we afford to fall further behind China and Korea by not upgrading the Internet? It is almost existentially complicated, but the one certainty is that the neglect of infrastructure since Eisenhower built the interstate highway system is unsustainable.

  15. What Republicans are against is taxing wealthy corporations or people. They don’t see a future for the country. Why continue to invest in it?

  16. The bottom line is no matter how you define infrastructure the Reactionary Right Wing-Bible Thumping GOP will oppose it.

    The GOP elected officials owe their positions by pleasing their base. The more Reactionary the base becomes, to fit in the elected GOP officials and wannabe elected GOP officials must reflect that base. Think of of chameleon changing colors to adapt to it’s surroundings.

    We marvel that a Sarah Palin, Taylor-Greene, Louie Gohmert can be elected. Yet there it is, they have adapted to the base. McConnell is better at hiding it as he tries to portray himself as reasonable. I suppose grading on a curve McConnell is more reasonable than Ted Cruz,

    The real position of the GOP today is to oppose what Biden wants, period. So, what is infrastructure or what is not infrastructure is simply another way for the GOP to obstruct.

  17. Todd is correct. Republicans and their supporters ARE idiots… in every sense of the word.

    Since Nixon and Reagan, Republicans have railed for world class infrastructure, bragged about how great we and then cut taxes to pay for all this grandiosity. It’s a con game, folks. As so many contributors to this blog have pointed out: Republicans have descended into right-wing sewers that make no sense except to those who have no minds of their own.

    Ironic, huh?

  18. So let me get this straight. The Republicans are against the bill because they disagree with the definition of the term infrastructure. So maybe if Biden just changes the name of the bill they’ll have to come up with a different bullshit argument. No doubt they will do so. They have become expert at coming up with idiotic excuses for not supporting anything that Democrats propose, for the sole purpose of coming up with any excuse to neutralize the Democrats. Will they ever actually come up with any productive programs instead of cutting taxes to increase the deficit and the debt and then blaming the Democrats for doing so even though history clearly indicates that in our lifetimes the Republicans have been responsible for the Lions share of the increase in the debt over the years, and the deficits have been larger during Republican administrations then during Democrat administrations with rare exceptions.

  19. If you want to dig deeper into the politics of infrastructure legislation, there is a great April 16th article in the Washington Monthly by Bill Scher, entitled “Should Biden Seriously Consider a Republican Infrastructure Bill?” The article also contains links to more detailed information. []

    The article points out that Mitt Romney and a group of 10 GOP senators might support sending Joe Biden an infrastructure bill worth at least $600 billion []
    The article also includes a proposal from Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) saying, The path forward that I’m seeing, and that I’m working for, is one where we take up and pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill, one that focuses on areas where the parties really agree about the need to invest in rural broadband, in safe drinking water, in roads and bridges, tunnels, highways airports … That could end up being an 800 billion to a trillion-dollar bipartisan bill.”

    The article then indicates, “But Coons, not wanting to prematurely surrender Biden’s other physical and human infrastructure priorities—including long-term care, child care, school construction, housing and paid family leave—also proposed a second ‘broader and bigger’ bill passed by reconciliation without any Republican votes.” 

    Coons proposal to pass the “broader and bigger” aspects of infrastructure in a separate bill closely parallels my suggestion above (in the first comment) about calling the Republican bluff and passing a Part A bill and working on Part B later.

    However, I would take a different approach on the bigger and broader Part B and not suggest reconciliation. As the article points out, Republicans would probably prohibit it as part of the deal and it’s doubtful the Senate Parliamentarian would approve many parts of it [].   

    Instead, and the article astutely recognizes, the realistic political challenge for Democrats is to “identify elements that go beyond what Republicans are touting and make them so popular that they become sacrosanct” and well within the so-called Overton window.

    The Part A/Part B strategy may be critically necessary at this point since timing is so important to get something done before the midterms and showing the electorate that Joe Biden and Democrats can get something done for the American public. Additionally, it may be able to draw out 10 Republicans which could be used on other critical issues. Reportedly, Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (WV), Mitt Romney (UT) and Bill Cassidy (LA) are part of such a group. The strategy might also work to get critical, focused “voting rights” legislation (exclusive of campaign & election reform issues) passed before the midterm election.

  20. Biden’s understanding of infrastructure is definitely the infrastructure of this century. He’s not stuck in the 50’s and 60’s lie so many in the GOP. What is it they say in business? Change or die.

    If the GOP wants to live, they need to be open to the changes in infrastructure systems created by new technologies.

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