If the infrastructure—roads, rails, water, and sewer lines—is the foundation of our economy, we are living on ruins and on borrowed time. The fragility of our infrastructure symbolizes the failure of a national ideology that has submerged public welfare under an ocean of private interests. And what Henry Adams observed while riding through ante-bellum Virginia, is true for today also: “bad roads meant bad morals.”
The 21st century inherited the 20th century’s infrastructure, whose maintenance was habitually deferred, so it’s really no wonder that our bridges need replacement and our roads need repair, along with our water and sewage lines. All material things are subject to the same laws of decay, rust, degradation, and failure, but where older buildings are often demolished and replaced by newer ones, much our infrastructure often decays unnoticed, out of sight, until a bridge or a tunnel collapses, a water main bursts, a gas line ruptures. Much of our national infrastructure, especially in the older cities, was built more than a hundred years ago, and things like cast iron water pipes, used early in the 20th century, have a lifespan of less than a hundred years.
You might be thinking: “is that my responsibility?” I believe it is. Addressing the invisible ruins of our public infrastructure must be reconceptualized in the 21st century, and this involves reframing the concept of private and public. Regarding amenities and services that are “public,” we might naturally think, “if I don’t use this thing, why should I pay for it? I pay for a meal because I have eaten it. Why should I pay for a meal that you are eating?” We saw this sentiment expressed most widely (and wildly) in the debate on the Affordable Care Act.
“Addressing the invisible ruins of our public infrastructure must be reconceptualized in the 21st century, and this involves reframing the concept of private and public.”
The problem with this sort of thinking, not sufficiently highlighted in public debate, is simple: you are not merely a private citizen. You are also a public citizen. Unless you live in solitude on an unknown deserted island, you have this dual identity.
In matters that are private (your food, clothing, shelter), you pay for what you use. You have autonomy. In matters that are public (defense, roads, water) you pay for things you may or may not use. You rely on experts, ideally, to figure out the needs. To think that you only should pay for what you personally use is to miss the whole point of what it means to live in a community, a city, a state, a nation. It is to miss the point of pooling the cost and pooling the risk of insurance policies of any kind. You can’t protest the fact that you might pay to insure your house and your auto for a lifetime and never get to use it. That’s the nature of insurance. You’ll be covered in the event of catastrophe.
Of course, repairing and rebuilding our infrastructure requires public funding, and the costs of proper maintenance—deferred for so long in so many places—are enormous. Conversely, the pool of available funding from the Federal government is wholly inadequate.(See the Congressional Research Service’s June 2020 report, R6410, Repairs and Alterations Backlog at the General Services Administration.) Some towns and cities—financially near collapse—have experimented in the last decade with privatizing water, and even sewer services, in the belief that anything private is better than public, more efficient, cheaper, less wasteful. But the results of privatizing public works have been unhappy, with restricted services and higher prices. After all, privatizing is based on the assumption that a business will make a profit, and there is little profit in public services. Privatize space travel, I would say, since traveling to the moon is not a public necessity. But not water, and not waste, and not the bridge I use daily. FEMA is often charged with temporary repairs, but the E in FEMA is for “Emergency,” and what we need is a long-term solution to this problem.
“The US taxation rate of 24% of gross domestic product is well below the average of other developed countries at 34%.”
Does this mean raising my taxes? Yes, because public works need public funding, and we are still generally under-taxed compared to other countries: the US rate of 24% of gross domestic product is well below the average of other developed countries (34%). One reason you marvel at the public spaces—parks, buildings, monuments, streets in Europe—is that France, Italy, Sweden, and others all have a revenue of more than 40% of gross domestic product. (It’s not surprising that the US ranks 15th in the international Quality of Life index.) We need massive and regular funding to sustain our failing infrastructure.
All of this goes against our habits and beliefs: we’ve been taught to believe that America is the greatest country in the world, that taxes are a nuisance, something suckers pay, and that it’s smart and even heroic to pay little or nothing. Really, it should be a badge of disgrace and dishonor, an act of social pathology, like eating all the chocolate strawberries on the dessert tray or watering your lawn during a drought; worse yet, it’s like closing the door on your neighbor during a storm, driving your speedboat by a drowning swimmer. Who would do this and boast about it?
At the heart of America’s future is the need to accept our dual citizenship—private and public—and our failure to do so may well doom us. We tend to frame our public debate in the most simplistic of terms: individualism vs. collectivism, libertarianism vs. socialism, as if they are mutually exclusive. These things are antithetical, but they are not mutually exclusive, and they are not polar choices. Every single person comprises both sides of this duality; every single person is both a private and a public citizen. If we can reframe the debate and accept our dual citizenship, we will begin to deal seriously with the ruins of our public works and the cost of fixing them.
Featured image by Giancarlo Revolledo on Unsplash