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U.S. Needs To Spend More On Infrastructure

by Rudy M. Baum
July 16, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 29

The ferocious storm that ripped across the Midwest and Middle Atlantic on June 29—a derecho, we later learned—left 2 million people without electricity and killed more than 20. Days later, several hundred thousand people were still without power, and in the punishing 90-plus-degree heat of that week, utility companies were being harshly criticized for being unprepared for the storm and not responding quickly enough to get everyone connected again to the grid. Many politicians also were questioning why the electrical infrastructure hadn’t been hardened, for instance by placing it underground, to be better able to withstand such a storm.

The storm and its aftermath left me with several thoughts. (A personal note: My wife and I weren’t unduly affected by the storm. We lost power for about 24 hours, a thankfully short time. Our house didn’t suffer any damage. I just mention this because I wasn’t in the unfortunate position of being without air-conditioning and refrigeration for several days of blistering heat.)

One thought is that we have become utterly unrealistic about what we, as a modern, industrialized nation, can be “prepared for.” In the wake of numerous natural and unnatural disasters, politicians and other public figures regularly insist that the damage and the time it took to repair it showed that we are just not prepared for handling such events. You heard it after 9/11, after Hurricanes Katrina and Irene, and after the June 29 derecho.

Here’s a news flash: There are some events that no society can afford to be prepared for to the extent that we have come to expect. Some quite natural events—hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, derechos—have such unimaginable power that the destruction they wreak will always take days, or weeks, or months to fix. No society can afford to harden the infrastructure that supports it to make that infrastructure immune to such destructive forces.

That said, we have as a society woefully neglected our infrastructure. Roads, bridges, ports, levees, water systems, sewage systems, the electrical grid, and so much more have been ignored for far too long. I know, we can’t afford anything anymore. We’re mired in debt. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—that’s a crock. The U.S. is still the richest country in the world by a long shot. What we are is cheap. We’re unwilling to pay enough in taxes to maintain the infrastructure we and, more important, our children need to thrive.

We’re also neglecting our intellectual infrastructure, for the same pathetic reasons. As Senior Editor Celia Henry Arnaud and Senior Editor Jyllian Kemsley reported so well in the July 2 issue of C&EN, states are reneging on their commitment to public higher education (pages 28 and 32). As Assistant Managing Editor Susan Morrissey observed in the July 9 issue, the sequestration that looms in 2013, if it goes into effect, will have a devastating impact on R&D in the U.S., with agencies like NIH, NSF, and NASA looking at up to 20% reductions in their budgets (page 28). An article in the July 2 Wall Street Journal on NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, scheduled to land on Mars in early August, noted that the U.S. had recently withdrawn from a partnership with the European Space Agency for future missions to Mars. To support the missions, ESA has turned to Russia, the country we now rely on to transport U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station. I’m willing to bet that the next humans to set foot on the moon will be Chinese.

This is not and should not be the path we continue on. Sequestration, an ill-conceived club designed to force legislators to reach a fiscal compromise, should be shelved. The George W. Bush Administration tax cuts, even more ill-conceived than sequestration given the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, should be allowed to lapse on all Americans. The problem is not that we are broke. The problem is that too many U.S. citizens are unwilling to contribute their fair share to supporting the social contract.

Thanks for reading.

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