America's "Neglected" Infrastructure

Once again, the Infrastructure Cult's narrative was picked up and magnified by the old media. This past weekend, 60 Minutes (yes, that is still a show) ran a piece called Falling Apart: America's Neglected Infrastructure. It contained all of the Cult's usual talking points.

  • We used to be a great country because we invested in infrastructure. We've stopped doing this and that is why we are experiencing decline.
  • Investing more money in infrastructure grows the economy and creates jobs. There is a direct correlation.
  • Americans today are too cheap, spoiled and subject to partisan manipulation to really grasp our infrastructure problem.
  • Bold leadership is needed.

Let me be clear: Our infrastructure is falling apart, this is a devastating and urgent problem and we do need leadership. Where I part with the Cult -- a collection of narrow minded, self-serving organizations masquerading as serving the public interest while instead undermining reform efforts -- is the nature of the problem.

They see a lack of money. I see an unfocused and undisciplined approach to spending our infrastructure dollars that not only fails to make productive investments but actually directly causes decline in our most financially productive places. Our current top-down, orderly-but-dumb approach to infrastructure spending is accelerating the decline the Cult is claiming to want to stave off.

We used to be a great country because we invested in infrastructure -- sure -- but that isn't all that makes a country great. If our infrastructure investments do not have a real, measurable return-on-investment, they will make us poor. We've made low- and negative-ROI investments for decades and that is catching up to us.

Investing in infrastructure does grow the economy and create jobs, in a Pavlov's dog kind of way. I've noted many times: when we pay someone to dig a ditch and fill it back in, we might have created growth and jobs as part of the transaction, but we are essentially right back where we started. When we pay someone to build a bridge, we have growth and jobs in the transaction but we also end up with a bridge. That may be a good transaction if the bridge creates more wealth and prosperity than it creates in maintenance obligations and long term expense, but who knows. We never bother to ask that question when we build the bridge. We don't even ask it when we find we don't have the money to fix it!

Yes, decades of federal spending on transportation -- all those 90% matching funds -- has allowed us to build a ton of stuff. The act of building created a lot of growth, jobs and economic activity. We got a lot of strip malls, big box stores and drive through restaurants as part of those transactions. Now we're struggling to maintain it all. Why is nobody asking the obvious question: Where is the wealth that is supposed to sustain all these trillions of dollars of investments?

When you combine public and private spending, the American people today are spending vastly more on infrastructure systems, particularly transportation, than ever before. We're not cheap. We're not spoiled. We're just fed up with the tail wagging the dog.