Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The U.S. : No Longer No. 1 in Infrastructure

The blistering report in The Economist ('Life in the Slow Lane', Apil 30, p. 29)was enough to make any red-blooded American sit up and take note. In examining the state of U.S. infrastructure, especially in comparison to other industrialized western nations, we are bringing up the rear in just about every category. It was enough of an Rx to cure once and for all the misplaced and delusional belief in American exceptionalism, especially now as we may be approaching a government default for the first time (thanks to GOP intransigence against any tax increases to amp up revenue, including revenue needed to repair infrastructure!

It is really eerie, creepy and more than a little sickening, to behold how so many in this country have been eerily fixated on the rise and fall of the stupid DOW while their national infrastructure has essentially regressed to the status of a third world nation's. It is more than a little frightening also, that people can become so transfixed by an artificial set of numbers based on phantom money while the very concrete developments that support it lay crumbling across the land: from burst sewer mains in Atlanta, to burst water mains in Colorado Springs and Denver (most over 100 years old), to collapsing bridges such as the one shown in Minneapolis from some years back. All symptoms of a country with misplaced priorities. A nation that would rather piss trillions away on military occupations than spend for domestic security.

The Economist piece notes that while the American highway system (mainly constructed in the 1950s when infrastructure spending was a healthy 4.8% of GDP) was a shining beacon, it is now a near travesty. The degenerating quality of the roads sees Americans spending more time commuting than nearly all Europeans with the exception of the Hungarians and Romanians, still trying to dig out from the communist-depleted pasts. The longer commute time means more time wasted as well as more potential for deadly accidents. So no wonder that the road fatality rate "is 60% above the OECD average, with 33,000 Americans killed in 2010." (ibid.).

Rail is not much better. What most of us who have traveled still behold here is not a patch on the rail systems fielded by the Germans or Swiss. IN fact, the rail systems here are downright pathetic. While the fastest U.S. rail transit is the northeastern corridor's Acela (between D.C. and Boston) which moves at 70 mph, the French TGV from Paris to Lyon travels at an average speed of twice that, or 140 mph. Japanese trains go even faster, up to 220 mph. Not only are American trains slow, the Economist observes, they are usually late, with a 77% punctuality rating compared to 99.9% for the Swiss and 98% for the Germans. But then the Swiss and Germans don't squander their capital and resources on useless "wars".

The Economist next tags air travel which isn't much better. Rather than implement a state of the art electronic air traffic monitoring system (such as used in Europe) we plow along "on a ground-based tracking system from the 1950s, which forces planes to use inefficient routes to stay in contact with controllers. The system's imprecision obliges controllers to keep more distance between air traffic, reducing the number of planes that can fly in the available space.". The Economist also points at "overbooked airports" as a source of frequent runway congestion, such as leads to long delays and often "forcing travelers to spend long hours stranded on the tarmac". We ought to be ashamed of this bullshit, and do everything possible to change it, but that takes money!

The most ominous of signs and portents, as the Economist report emphasized, is that the country's population is projected to increase by 40% over the next 4 decades, but there is little sign that the infrastructure will be able to support it. This increase will be nearly equivalent to adding "another whole nation nearly the size of Japan". Road funds now are provided, often with grudging hesitation, but not the extra funds to keep roads, highways maintained.

The Economist notes that "between 1956 and 1992 America constructed the interstate highway system, among the largest public works projects in history which criss-crossed the contry with nearly 50,000 miles of motorways." So what happened? Well, according to the report, "modern America is stingier". The total public spending on works is now barely 2.4% of GDP compared to the average 5% of GDP in European nations. I would also add that this diminished contribution parallels the nation's ever diminishing vision, which has almost correlated with its increasing finacialization, e.g. enhancing growth in "financial services" - stock managers, bond traders, investment bankers...at the expense of supporting engineering works,....and such things as robust manned space exploration: the culmination of human engineering achievement. Where we once aspired to conceive of and build colonies on the Moon and Mars, we've reduced our sights to hitch hiking on occasional Russian craft, after the last Shuttle mission. After that, we actually expect "private enterprise" to do what government used to, blithely ignoring the divergent economies of scale. Give me a freakin' break! JFK must be turning over in his grave as he beholds the reduced vision. The same parallels our aspirations re: infrastructure. Rather than sustain and build anew, we're content to navel gaze at our stock portfolios which will mean nada if we can't get from point A to point B. And, btw, endorsing a new infrastructure theme also means announcing ways and means to PAY for it. So for I've heard zip and nada.

A lot of the basis for future financing is known, but that implies a three-letter word most pols and their lackeys despise:TAX! Just to raise the $1.7 trillion needed to bring most of our crumbling roads, bridges, and sewer-water mains to a state of nominal repair, will need federal tax rates at the high marginal level of 44% for ten years, and for the lesser categories (below $60,000/yr) , maybe 20%. Oh, and absolutely, positively no more damned tax cuts, which have been the primary agent bleeding us into this third world state.

The Economist for its part (p. 31) mentions introducing a "fuel tax rate increase"(currently at 18.4 c a gallon) but they also note that "these are even more unpopular than deficits". Well, tough luck! Do Americans want to be able to keep driving without breaking an axle on a pothole or not? DO they want to retain other benefits, or not? It's time to make up their minds! And it's time for politicians to stop game-playing and coddling people with the myth they can have endless tax cuts and also have a prosperous nation - like having one's cake and eating it too. Or that they can have a prosperous nation with tax cuts if they only make enough spending cuts. To quote one Brit about this last strategy:"That's like cutting off your foot and saying it'll help you run faster!:"

I totally agree. But will my countrymen? Who knows? It's always easier for many of them to simply dismiss these serious problems as being "negative" while they bray at those of us who bring it to attention with the usual dumb refrain: "This is 'Murica, buddy! Love it or leave it!". They're all too stupid and illiterate to see that they're leaving their country... in the planetary dumpster!

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