It’s not that infrastructure doesn’t crumble — everything turns to dust eventually. Obviously, useful bridges, ports, airports and highways need to be maintained, and as a country grows it needs new ones. It’s just that the press allows members of the civil engineering-industrial complex to bamboozle them into believing that all calls for building infrastructure are equal.
The bamboozling usually begins with a sweeping declaration about America’s shoddy highway bridges and the urgent need to repair them. Obama hit his mark in his State of the Union speech where he plugged his “Fix-It-First” program, which would mend the “nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country.” Zakaria finds Fix-It-First insufficient, calling it a mere “Band-Aid on America’s growing cancer of failing infrastructure.” Citing the 2009 report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which gave the nation’s infrastructure a “D” and estimated the cost of repairing it at $2.2 trillion, Zakaria demands the dramatic expansion of American infrastructure. The ASCE recently upped its estimate of how much should be spend on infrastructure by 2020 to $2.7 trillion (pdf), which is two-thirds greater than the feds, the states and local governments are expected to spend on it by then. Zakaria expressed even greater enthusiasm for spending infrastructure trillions in a November piece for Time.
Zakaria isn’t alone in calling for massive infrastructure spending by the government. Business Insider’s Henry Blodget is on board, as is the Washington Post‘s Neil Irwin, the Economist, the Atlantic, Edward Luce of the Financial Times and others in the press. A current World Economic Forum report (pdf) on global competitiveness ranks U.S. infrastructure as 25th-best in the world, behind Barbados, the United Arab Emirates and Switzerland, which is No. 1. The degrading infrastructure, says the ASCE, could cost the average American household $3,100 by the 2020 if current trends continue.
One thing you can say about the infrastructure hawks is that they are consistent in their warnings. As far back as 1983, scholar Amitai Etzioni was quoted in the pages of Time (paid) warning that infrastructure neglect was turning America into “an underdeveloping country, with its modern economy in reverse gear,” a notion that Time endorsed. Four years ago, I wrote a column for Slate about the exaggerations of the infrastructure hawks, who were filling newspapers and airwaves with similar warnings that our roads, water pipes and electric grid were verging on collapse. (Many of the ideas in that column are reprised here, although I like my new, rejiggered intro better.)