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U.S. Needs To Spend More On Infrastructure

by Rudy M. Baum
July 16, 2012 | 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.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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Chad (July 16, 2012 8:30 PM)
"I know, we can’t afford anything anymore."

We are either the richest nation that has ever existed, or close to it, depending on your definition. We certainly can afford it.

All it takes is for us to raise our taxes, which are at multi-generational lows and the third lowest of the 34 OECD nations. Our governments are only "broke" because we have chosen to repeatedly cut our taxes over the last thirty years. We get what we pay for.
SimpleSense (July 24, 2012 9:38 AM)
As long as the Democratic and Republican Parties are in possession of their limitless stash of magic pixie dust (active ingredient is ground up, recycled social issues) that they sprinkle on the crowds at their rallies to incite the masses, they can effectively divert the public's attention away from failing infrastructure, billionaires who pay zero tax on trillions of dollars in overseas accounts, and of course, the desperate truth that we need to raise taxes to fix these things.

As happens every election cycle, we will instead continue our discussion (if you call it that) on gay marriage/equal rights, pro-life/pro-choice, freedom of religion/separation of Church and State, and since the media loves to cover polarizing issues, here we are (again).

I don’t believe in whining for the sake of whining, so what do we do to fix this? I think the first step would be to tell the politicians, when they reach for their bag of magic pixie dust, to shut up about these issues and tell us what they are doing with our money…
tp1024 (September 16, 2012 2:40 AM)
As a European, I'm sorry to tell you you're dead wrong.

One of us comes to the US and is struck by the power lines hanging in the open between houses. This is fairly rare sight in countries like Germany, which is not richer than the US. And so are multi-day power outages.

It's true, high voltage power lines are of the conventional above-ground type as well, they break in storms but those are an easy fix. What takes time is not fixing a few high-capacity transmission lines, but lots of smaller and less important ones. And most of that infrastructure is underground.

Why can a country like Germany with just 90% of the US per capita GDP afford this? Simple, we don't live on one of the most desolate continents of the world. Europe has three times the average population density and significantly higher density in cities - we don't have american-style suburbs housing the majority of the population. And that makes infrastructure that much more affordable.

As for hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was woefully underprepared to the point that I saw a dubbed version of a documentary on New Orleans in the 1990ies in German TV saying that New Orleans would be flooded if a Hurrican of magnitude 3 or larger struck the city. That takes some doing. Engineers have been saying it for decades, but nobody was willing to commit a few tens of millions of dollars to prevent several billion dollars of damage.

You can't be prepared for everything, but at least make sure to be prepared for everything you can be prepared. Holland is famously braced for storms it hasn't seen in decades and doesn't expect to see in centuries - because the expenditure for excessive protection is that much lower than the expenditure to clean up excessive damage.

It is, by the way, the exact kind of thinking that led to the Fukushima disaster. Some $50 million of very generic retrofits for each of the 54 reactors in Japan (as was done in Germany, France, Sweden and other countries over 20 years ago, protecting against hydrogen explosions, providing dedicated filtered containment vents and extra emergency generators) could have prevented on the order of $50-100bn of damage. All that for the price of a single reactor to the whole of the Japanese society ($2.7bn).

The British would call your approach penny-wise and pound-foolish.

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