Tuesday, January 10, 2012

R.I.P Infastructuralist

I just learned that one of the staple sites where I get my information has ceased publication. I’m referring to The Infrastucturalist – a site that covers very well one of the least sexy – and most important-issues of society.

So R.I.P. Infrastructuralist. One less site to surf, I guess. In the meantime, there is also The Atlantic Cities, Planetizen, Shareable and others, which are focused more on urban issues than infrastructure, per se.

So this might be a good time to include a short paean to infrastructure. Infrastructure is society. When people journey to so-called underdeveloped counties, what they really miss is good, solid, first-world infrastructure – roads you can drive on that won’t break an axle, electricity that doesn’t cut in and out, the ability to bathe indoors and drink water without boiling it first – you know, that sort of stuff.

We in America take for granted that we can flush our wastes away; that we will get safe, clean drinking water whenever we turn a tap; that power will be available whenever we plug something into a wall; and that we will be able to get from point A to point B on a relatively smooth, paved road. Well, let me tell you, that doesn’t just happen by magic. It takes constant work, effort, diligence, engineering and investment. Entropy is always there waiting to gobble up this fundamental enabler of civilization that we pay almost no attention to. Many parts of the world do not have this.

Infrastructure decay is the surest sign of civilizational collapse. Abandoned and decaying infrastructure are distinctive features of the ruins of the Mesopotamians, Harappa, the Roman Empire, the Khmer Empire, the Minoans, the Aztecs, the Indians of the Southwestern U.S., , etc. As the Western Roman empire decayed, large-scale stone buildings ceased to be constructed, roads we no longer built (although existing ones were so durable they last till this day), and aqueducts were left to decay. Per Wikipedia:
With the fall of the Roman Empire, although some of the aqueducts were deliberately cut by enemies, many more fell into disuse from the lack of an organized maintenance system. The decline of functioning aqueducts to deliver water had a large practical impact in reducing the population of the city of Rome from its high of over 1 million in ancient times to considerably less in the medieval era, reaching as low as 30,000.
To my mind, the decay of our nation’s infrastructure at every level is the surest sign that we are collapsing. Please see the following:

More Than Half a Trillion Dollars Needed to Fix America's Water and Sewer Systems (The Downward Spiral)

And we’ve covered a town in Alabama that’s being completely cut off from water, Highland Park permanently turning off street lights, and roads being turned back into gravel. As the Archdruid pithily put it: “The future can’t afford to pay its bills.” As he also noted, cities and towns destroyed by natural disasters are less and less likely to rebuilt to the level they were before the disaster (New Orleans, tornado-ravaged towns, etc.)

Of course, we have plenty of money and resources to rectify the situation. One of the most important investments we can make in the future is infrastructure. That’s why it’s a no-brainer to construct things like high-speed rail that allow people to move between major cities as the price of gas increases. But in America, even infrastructure has been politicized by the reactionary right: public transportation is “socialism” (i.e. "I may have to sit next to someone outside of my socioeconomic class"). You would think that given the following circumstances:

1. Our infrastructure is decaying and falling apart

2. We have millions of idle workers due to the construction downturn

3. Opportunities for investment are scarce

4. Energy is more and more expensive

The solution would be obvious – put people back to work building a post-carbon infrastructure. But you would be wrong.

Essentially, the government could claw back all that unproductive money sitting in the bank accounts of major corporations that they stole from worker productivity over the past twenty years, and use it to make investments that will allow us to weather an energy-scare future. But that assumes a functioning political system not based on bribes and patronage. I think we all know the score there. In state houses around the country, Koch-brothers stooges have turned down rail funding that was already earmarked. They were afraid taxpayers would have to foot the bill. Here’s a news flash: taxpayers always foot the bill for infrastructure. Infrastructure isn’t meant to turn a profit! See the following:

Transit’s Not Bleeding the Taxpayer Dry — Roads Are
Between 2004 and 2008, roads in the state cost an average of $4.24 billion annually. Of this, $1.74 billion came from revenue sources unrelated to road use—primarily property and sales taxes—while another $600 million was borrowed. The fact is, roads constitute one of the biggest tax burdens we face.
Paul Krugman sums it up nicely in a column from last year:
Meanwhile, a country that once amazed the world with its visionary investments in transportation, from the Erie Canal to the Interstate Highway System, is now in the process of unpaving itself: in a number of states, local governments are breaking up roads they can no longer afford to maintain, and returning them to gravel.

In effect, a large part of our political class is showing its priorities: given the choice between asking the richest 2 percent or so ... to go back to paying the tax rates they paid during the Clinton-era boom, or allowing the nation’s foundations to crumble ... they’re choosing the latter. It’s a disastrous choice..., those state and local cutbacks are a major drag on the economy, perpetuating devastatingly high unemployment.

It’s crucial to keep state and local government in mind when you hear people ranting about runaway government spending under President Obama. Yes, the federal government is spending more, although not as much as you might think. But state and local governments are cutting back..., if you look at government spending as a whole you see hardly any stimulus at all. And with federal spending now trailing off, while big state and local cutbacks continue, we’re going into reverse.

But isn’t keeping taxes for the affluent low also a form of stimulus? Not so you’d notice. When we save a schoolteacher’s job, that unambiguously aids employment; when we give millionaires more money instead, there’s a good chance that most of that money will just sit idle.

And what about the economy’s future? Everything we know about economic growth says that a well-educated population and high-quality infrastructure are crucial. Emerging nations are making huge efforts to upgrade their roads, their ports and their schools. Yet in America we’re going backward.

How did we get to this point? It’s the logical consequence of three decades of antigovernment rhetoric, rhetoric that has convinced many voters that a dollar collected in taxes is always a dollar wasted, that the public sector can’t do anything right.

The antigovernment campaign has always been phrased in terms of opposition to waste and fraud — to checks sent to welfare queens driving Cadillacs, to vast armies of bureaucrats uselessly pushing paper around. But those were myths, of course; there was never remotely as much waste and fraud as the right claimed. And now that the campaign has reached fruition, we’re seeing what was actually in the firing line: services that everyone except the very rich need, services that government must provide or nobody will, like lighted streets, drivable roads and decent schooling for the public as a whole.
Matt Yglesias discussing Amtrak points out:
Is the idea that Amtrak ought to operate the way a for-profit company would and not operate any services that don't earn positive cash flow? Or is the idea simply that Amtrak should earn a sufficient operating surplus from some lines to generate the necessary subsidy to discharge its public service obligations? Or is the question whether Amtrak can be turned into something that earns a reasonable rate of return on its capital investments? Or something in between? Given the extremely large fixed costs associated with railroads these are pretty different ideas. The merits of passenger rail aside, I note that it would be extremely surprising if this were a profitable business to be in. The highways and airlines that Amtrak competes with aren't, in general, profitable either. The right question to ask, in general, is how to get the most bang for our transportation tax dollar and what level of government ought to be providing the subsidies.
For a portrait of an extreme case of what happens when we leave infrastructure to the mercy of entropy, see Alan Weisman’s World Without Us:
As with the suburbs, the primary agent of natural restoration will be the stuff of life itself – water. New York City’s water table, which in pre-colonial days was absorbed by soil and grass and the roots of oaks and beech trees, currently has nowhere to go and must be pumped daily from beneath the city streets in order to keep it from flooding the subway tunnels. With people out of the picture, this water will eventually fill what lies below until, Weisman tells us, streets degrade and cave in, and Lexington Avenue itself becomes a river. While buildings erode from water below, they will be similarly attacked from the sky, as rain gains access via roof and skylight leaks, rusting metal and devouring everything else in its path except stone, so that when the flora and fauna – coyotes, wolves, bears, bobcats – retake the city, the only buildings remaining will be those like Grand Central Station, with its everlasting marble construction.
And eventually goats are grazing in the Roman Forum. What can you say about a country whose citizens are in denial of the future, politically gridlocked, constantly bickering among themselves, and making all the wrong choices even as the fundamental elements advanced society built by their ancestors slowly crumble and rust in the rain around them? Infrastructure decay is not the sign of a fast collapse, but rather the drip, drip, drip water torture of catabolic collapse.

Tracking down the roots of our sanitary sewers


  1. Because of its solid conservative majority, the residents of the upscale town a few miles from us have discovered recently that being too cheap to maintain 50- to 100-year-old water supply, storm drainage and sewer structures is having serious consequences. What are they doing about it? Screaming about taxes and moving to the McMansion exurbs, of course.

  2. That's what happens as people get poorer and don't understand why. Without a broad tax base, you can't have infrastructure. And without the ability to tax businesses, you can't get enough money to maintain it. Businesses just up and move to someplace with more subsidies. I noticed this today:

    "Stevens Point - A central Wisconsin medical products company says it will move the majority of its manufacturing operations out of Wisconsin.

    The move by Joerns Healthcare in Stevens Point will likely leave at least 200 people unemployed. Joerns says it plans to spread operations between facilities in Arlington, Texas; Matamoros, Mexico and Duman, Ark., over the next six to 12 months.

    Local officials are angry over the move, saying the company was offered incentives to stay in Stevens Point. Mayor Andrew Halverson tells the Stevens Point Journal state and city incentives were in the multimillions."

    "Every man for himself" does not a society make. Unfortunately, infrastructure is socialism, thus it must be abolished:

    Milwaukee Sewer Socialism


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