Thursday, June 17, 2021

Week of Explanation 4; Infrastructure

Infrastructure is one of the key philosophical differences in our political system now. That is, it does break down along Democratic / Republican lines, but for actual reasons of political policy, not just posturing (although there is plenty of that too).

Politicians have been proposing (and failing to pass) "Infrastructure Bills" since at least the time of George Bush the younger. Sometimes they are planned but not introduced because they won't pass (Obama). Sometimes there are planned, but other things get in the way (Bush the younger an 9/11). Sometimes they are talked about endlessly, but fuck all is actually proposed (Trump). So what is the problem? There are a few:

Infrastructure Problems are Out of Sight

Americans don't usually notice problems until they fail. Politicians, in particular, don't like to spend money that can wait. Think of it like a person with limited funds taking care of their home. If the Cable TV works, you don't usually mind that the cable itself stretches across the floor, you can live with it. Or if a lamp has 3 light bulbs and one burns out, often you don't care. It's the same with infrastructure. Remember the bridge in Minneapolis that fell? The governments (local, state and federal) knew it needed work. But nothing happened until it collapsed.

Our infrastructure is aging, and we know it. Look at the "report card" above. It's not just that some categories are poor, but many are increasingly poor over time, but until they break, we don't do anything about it.

Wrong People are Effected

Much of the poor and/or expansive infrastructure issues effect the poor (who don't donate to politicians) or the remote (which don't have the legislative clout). And inequality makes this massively worse. For an illustration, take the rich, white suburbs of North Atlanta. They want to succeed from the poorer, blacker parts of Atlanta. While Atlanta may be fine, that same system of moving and ignoring the city center happened before in Detroit and St. Louis - to the point where the central cities are starved of funds, even though they provide the jobs for people in the suburbs.

One way to fix this is to create HUGE cities. Houston, Jacksonville, Los Angeles and New York all expanded their city limits to include suburbs in to fight this.

But that doesn't help rural areas. Think of this, my mother lives in the foothills in Montana. Now, it is close to Missoula and technically in a small town. She cannot get internet. She has to use a privately provided dial- up system. DIAL-UP! Now, instead of my mother, think of children trying to do remote schooling with internet because of location or cost. Those children lost a year of school. The rural and the poor who can least afford to lose education.

Government vs. Private Funds

Republicans and Democrats have different views of how to pay for infrastructure. Republicans tend to favor private construction. That is, they will help private companies through red tape, but will have them build the infrastructure AND let them take the user fees. But this transfers costs in a very unequal way.

Let's take Orange County California for example. In 1994 Orange County went bankrupt and got approval, because of this, to let private companies build toll roads (a first in California). Never mind that Orange County is one of the richest counties in America, they screwed up their finances. (As to "rich", the median family income in Newport Beach was $103,000 in 2010. In Irvine was $93,000. In Rancho Santa Margarita #104,000 - all areas served by toll roads.

Who pays these tolls? Not the locals, but the poorer workers that have to do the service jobs in Orange County but have to drive for affordable areas in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.  

And how did this "private" companies build the roads? With government secured loans (so they can't loss any money), eased environmental regulations and the loss of thousands of acres of public park lands in the Cleveland National Forest, the Laguna Beach National Wetlands and South Orange county Greenbelt.

Democrats usually prefer public money going to public infrastructure.

Privatizing Profits, Insuring Loses

The very worst situation is the situation is the one where public goods are privatized, but only for profits. There are a million examples, but the latest and loudest is the Texas power grid. Texas privatized their power generation and power grid. In most states, power generation (like water and schools) is a public good and the price is regulated. Private companies, where they do operate, make enough profits to make share holders happy and are regulated enough so that routine maintenance has to occur.

But the Texas power grid is different (it is state regulated because it only covers Texas). When the energy companies were making tons of money, everyone was happy. But the companies did not invest as they would have been required elsewhere. And, when a cold snap hit, the grid failed and over 160 people died of cold. In America, they died because they couldn't get heat or electricity! That compares to zero people in Canada, Norway and Iceland that are all a lot colder! And after that, the state stepped in with money to upgrade the grid for the private company.

But it is even worse. The grid was NOT built by the private companies. Public funds built the grid. It was sold to the energy companies who were suppose to maintain it. So the state politicians took a public good, privatized it, the private companies made a bunch of money and when upgrades are needed the state covers it. Now, no one is going to blame the state for upgrades, because they are necessary. But, once they are complete, the private grid operators will go right back to making profits off public spending.

You would think this would never happen again. But this exact same thing happened in California with Enron and others. You know who didn't pay absolutely fucking crazy prices during that period in California? Los Angeles residents, because we had a city utility, Los Angeles Water and Power that wasn't allowed to raise prices to screw us.

Is This a Recent Phenomenon?

That is a great question. And the answer is yes - if you mean by new, since Ronald Reagan.  Republicans (per-Reagan) didn't act like this. The Eisenhower Administration  built the interstate highway system. The Kennedy and Nixon Administration built the space program (now privatized). The Theodore Rosevelt Administration created the National Park system to safe guard public lands (and The Trump Administration reduced them in size or reduced oversight to allow private mining). Various administrations of all stripes built airports, post offices and bridges.


There is really no problem paying for infrastructure, it is only politics. The people of America (Republican and Democrat) want reliable and adequate infrastructure and are willing to pay for it. Hell, reduce the military budget by 2% and everything could be paid for! But many politicians, particularly but not exclusively Republicans, think infrastructure should be "privatized". You will find nearly all of these elected officials take a shit load of campaign funds and payoffs to vote against Americans' perferred outcom. 

Rich Americans (those that donate millions) don't really care about public goods. They use private airports (Teterboro (NYC) and Van Nuys (LA) are two of the biggest), have private roads, gated communities, private schools and often very limited interaction with the public. So the lack of public infrastructure doesn't effect them (note that this is both Democratic AND Republican rich people).

Bottom Line

Elect people that believe in infrastructure for all Americans. And hold them accountable. Trump and Biden both proposed over $1Trillion dollars in infrastructure spending. Trump did fuck all. Can Biden do better? We will see. But don't hold your breath.

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