We sure do have a lot of crumbling infrastructure in the US. But I can’t help but to think a lot of the infrastructure gap comes from past policies subsidizing unsustainable development of rural areas and the suburbs. Imagine if instead of building highways to empty land to develop single-family suburban detached homes, we built trains to new village centers that were mixed use, mixed income, and mixed form housing.
America fetishizes community, until that community because pluralist and mixed-race. Then we began to fetishize individualism instead, just in time to lock up centuries of advantage. We glorify the frontier. We exalt the family homestead. We command dominion over all lands. And so, America has large suburban pastures stretched well beyond the municipal limits with sewers, roads, bridges, power lines, copper, and fiber. We borrowed long term debt for systems that would last decades and road population growth driven by immigration (but not those immigrants, and no longer) and cheap energy that borrowed from the future’s climate to pay down these huge initial investments. Through government subsidies and programs, we created a new homeowner class, handing wealth to whites in the form of a tangible asset. Those assets depreciate, but slowly, so slowly that it would take more than a lifetime to notice.
Once established in our new homes and new suburbs and new cars, segregated and building familial wealth, it was easy to ignore the maintenance. New stuff rarely breaks. America builds best. It’s easy enough to fix things once they need to be fixed. Maintenance investment is not sexy. On the other side of those projects, things work as expected. There’s nothing new to show off. No accomplishments to put your name on. Our predecessors built this, what have I got to show for my time? And so, we ignore the slow rot that stretches across our infrastructure. We built unsustainably, and every social, political, and cultural incentive line up to add more, even less sustainable infrastructure.
It doesn’t help that America built itself up during the Cold War. Communism, our mortal enemy, sought to plan. America’s muscular capitalism would never make that mistake.
And then came the greed. The America of the 80s inherited the investments of the first half of the 20th century and everything “worked” splendidly, if you were the kind of person who had resources already. Government spending and investment was not seen as the supporting platform on top of which our wealth was generated, but instead was stealing from the deserving winners in our so-called meritocracy. The spiral of disinvestment was solidified right as the ratio of benefits to current costs on our infrastructure hit its peak.
It is no wonder why so many parts of America crumbles, forgotten. Rot is everywhere, often unseen. It’s fueled by white flight. It’s fueled by individualism. It’s fueled by neo-frontierism, and Manifest Destiny. It’s fueled by power and privilege.
The solutions will take decades, if not centuries. Some places do not work in America. Truthfully, they never have, not in any long term way. More and more cities and towns will die, as they often have throughout history on the far reaches of human occupation. Illusory wealth created will fade, and individuals and their families will be hurt by no fault of their own. We will have to build new forms, make a different set of investments that slowly reshapes our country. We will have to do so with an eye toward sustainability, for the planet and for future inhabitants of our communities.
Or we won’t, and the problems will continue, and we will decline, fighting instead to slow the fall and avoid collapse, giving up on a great future because it requires change.