Maintaining Infrastructure: The Curse of Success
Taking the Real Necessities for Granted
One of the many strange things about being a resident of a modern, urban society is our almost complete lack of connection to the natural world. We play little or no part in producing the food that we eat or the water that we drink. If you ask a little, urban-dwelling kid where food comes from, he or she will look at you strangely and say, “the grocery store.” And when we shop at the grocery store, turn the handle on a faucet, or flush a toilet, we rarely if ever think about the processes that made these actions possible. We spend much of our lives in artificial environments, complete with electric lighting, temperature control, and the relative absence of bugs and filth. This is all made possible, of course, by the production of massive amounts of energy through processes that we rarely think about, many of which have a detrimental effect on the natural environment. But in our world, roads, electric lights, houses, cars, sinks, and toilets are as much a part of the natural environment as the air, sun, and wind, and arguably, even more so.
Don’t get me wrong. I love these modern conveniences. It’s fantastic that the lights consistently come on, water comes out of the faucet, and that the box of Cheerios is always sitting there on the grocery store shelf. I can’t help wondering, however, if modern American society will ultimately become a victim of its own success. Because infrastructure is so integrated into the environment, and we take it so much for granted, we fail to recognize all of the effort and resources that are necessary to maintain it properly. So when people engage in debates about important political issues, our decaying national infrastructure is rarely anywhere near the top of the list.
Part of the problem, of course, is that the United States federal government, along with many state and local governments, is buried in a mountain of debt. Given this situation, politicians are unlikely to score points by pushing for more spending. You would be hard pressed, however, to find large numbers of people who want to eradicate or even sharply reduce the programs where the federal government spends most of its money: defense, Social Security, Medicare, education, and other various social programs. So the federal government spends hundreds of billions on weapons, retirement programs, and other welfare benefits, but relatively speaking, the infrastructure that makes our lifestyles possible receives a trickle.
There are different explanations for these distorted priorities. People often feel more threatened by potential, spectacular attacks that may come from foreign threats than by infrastructure issues that develop more gradually and that might cause our nation to deteriorate from within. People who grow accustomed or dependent on government benefits do not typically want to give them up. It may simply be human nature to desire or demand services from the government without actually paying for them. This is why cutting government spending and balancing budgets is much easier to do in theory than in practice. Also, to say the least, many Americans have little faith in the capacity of the government or of regulated utility monopolies to invest money wisely. Infrastructure projects, therefore, are often perceived as pork barrel spending, with money thrown down the toilet by politicians seeking to score points with their constituents or benefit their political cronies.
But the problem runs deeper than paranoia, selfishness, laziness, or a lack of faith in government. Because the infrastructure generally works so well, we don’t see the need to spend very much on it. So we demand relatively low utility and tax bills so that we can have enough money left over to spend on more than just the basics. We “need” satellite TV, ipads, smart phones, Xboxes, and all the rest of it. But if we are forced to spend too much money maintaining electricity, water, natural gas, transportation, and sewage systems, we won’t have enough left over for all those other “necessities.” So Apple makes billions by selling their increasingly sophisticated devices, and sewage systems, bridges, and natural gas/power lines decay. By spending so much on luxury, we are, as a society, potentially neglecting the necessities.
But so long as the infrastructure continues to function most of the time, it’s hard to imagine anything of significance changing. The only time we think about the processes that make our lives possible, after all, is when they stop working correctly. And politicians are unlikely to do particularly well in elections if they want to fund infrastructure projects by either raising taxes or diverting money away from defense spending, Social Security, or other entitlement programs. They need to keep their constituents happy, defending us from “terrorists” and seeking to ensure that enough Americans have the resources necessary to get their hands on life’s “necessities.” And the last thing we Americans want is for a bunch of stupid politicians or utility companies to take our hard-earned dollars and throw them away on projects that we don’t really need.