Our Infrastructure Deficit: This Time, It’s Personal

June 2nd, 2011 at 9:01 am

For the second day in a row, there is no power in the building which houses my employer, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (the CBPP website is still up, though).  Apparently, a number of buildings in that part of town are out.  PEPCO, our local utility, says we’ll be back on at noon today, but we’ll see.

OK, so let’s get this straight.  We’ve got major infrastructure deficits in this country, including an electricity grid that’s demonstrably unreliable.  I get that systems come down, but a city block…for two days!  That’s a little scary.

And my situation is, of course, a microcosm of a larger, known problem.  Check out the 2009 Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers:

Aviation D

Bridges C

Dams D

Drinking Water D-

Energy D+

Hazardous Waste D

Inland Waterways D-

Levees D-

Public Parks and Recreation C-

Rail C-

Roads D-

Schools D

Solid Waste C+

Transit D

Wastewater D-

America’s Infrastructure GPA: D
Estimated 5 Year Investment Need:
$2.2 Trillion

Source: ASCE

There’s the demand.  Where’s the supply?  Um…how about 20+ million un- or underemployed, including construction workers, whose unemployment rate is about 18%.

I know…show me the money.  These are public goods, and thus private industry will underinvest in them.  Now, I know we’re in the midst of spending-cut frenzy, but infrastructure investment—that’s “investment” as in: do this right and it boosts the economy’s productive capacity—has historically been one area where partisans agree.

In that regard, it was unfortunate to read Rep Eric Cantor in this AM’s paper get this wrong: “The president talked about a need for us to continue to quote-unquote invest from Washington’s standpoint, and for a lot of us that’s code for more Washington spending, something that we can’t afford right now.”

No, sir—with respect, that is not secret code.  The President is right, and to ignore needed public investments based on anti-spending ideology is to create an infrastructure deficit much more worrisome and damaging to the long-term economic well-being of this nation than the federal budget deficit.

Plus, I kinda need to get back in the office one of these days.

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22 comments in reply to "Our Infrastructure Deficit: This Time, It’s Personal"

  1. Main Street Muse says:

    Looking at the report card, it’s clear that the costs associated with “starving the beast” are really quite high.

    • fausto412 says:

      Starving the beast is so obvious that yuou only have to go back 2 years to see how at every turn the GOP wants to cut revenues and then when fiscal problems show up they want to cut spending because increasing taxes is a no-no. we as Americans should demand better. i mean seriously, we want things, we need things, and these things cost money.

  2. Kevin Rica says:


    I sympathize in general. But when you cite the “2009 Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers” about: “whether we need to employ more civil engineers to rebuild more infrastructure,” you violate “The First Law of Expert Advice”:

    “Never ask the barber if you need a haircut.”

    • Jared Bernstein says:

      Yo, look around dude…sometimes the barber is right. I can’t get into my building! Do you think our infrastructure is up to speed?

      • Kevin Rica says:

        I’m in my building — I don’t see what the problem is.

        (actually, where I live, the electric company had to replace most of our electrical system about 3 years ago and had to do MAJOR deforestation to protect the lines — so I am sympathetic.)

        You are correct that barbers are right some of the time, but so is a stopped watch, but stopped watches create no moral hazard.

        I am skeptical about the study. Drinking water a D-? When is the last time you heard of a major outbreak of waterborn illness in this country? This isn’t Honduras: We are not boiling our water.

        Be very careful about accepting technical advice from vested interests.

        • fausto412 says:

          that drinking water letter grade could include our water delivery systems and our water treatment plants. how often do you hear that a new water treatment plant is being built?

        • Kim Alderman says:

          Kevin, while I understand your skepticism regarding vested interests, I don’t think your example about drinking water was persuasive. When I clicked on the Drinking Water link to the ASME Report Card, I saw numerous citations from non-ASME sources which documented the lack of funding for drinking water infrastructure. While our current drinking water may be good, do you know anything about the underlying infrastructure that provides and treats that water? Since I don’t, I’m going to look to groups like ASME, EPA, Congressional Budget Office, and the US House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to provide me data. Honestly, what I read doesn’t look very reassuring.

          We may quibble about an exact grade; maybe it should be a C- instead of a D-. Either way, it seems evident that our drinking water infrastructure is underfunded. And as Fooshion points out below, this seems like the most economical time to undertake many of these infrastructure projects.

          I, for one, don’t want to wait until we are boiling our water to address the problem.

          • Kevin Rica says:


            I’m not saying that we are an A+. But I’ve lived in a high rise somewhere that must have been a C because the neighboring countries were Fs. And when I went on R&R, I was astounded that my GI tract functioned properly. So to say that we are a D- is asinine. If you told me that my area was a B- by a developed country grading scale because the operating costs were too high, I’d consider that quite plausible. But a D-? They have their hand out!

            It’s outcomes that count, not how much you are spending. I have a dirty 8-year old car with a missing hubcap. It gets me where I want to go even if the National Association of Automobile Dealers rates it a D—.

    • Jeff H says:

      When I get a hair cut I actually ask the barber to make me look good. He is the expert, so I trust him…

  3. D Furlano says:


    There is absolutely no valid reason for Fed not to be putting out infrastructure projects.

    Additionally, there is no reason for the Fed not to be giving money directly to states to get public sector employees back to work.

    The idea of either the debt or big government being an issue is all ideology and emotion. We need to get by this “mob mentality” and move to fixing the real economic problems of unemployment and lack of demand.


    • fausto412 says:

      but remember, we need to cut taxes to get jobs going…it’s the GOP plan!

      never mind the crappy Bush economy and the aftermath we continue to deal with today.

  4. Bob Airhart, Springboro says:

    $2.2 trillion for infastructure and increased employment? Is that figure close to the amount the US spends to blow up Iraq, Afghanistan, Packastan and other assorted countries? Is that figure close to what the US sends in military “aide” to fundamentalist dictators around the globe? It looks like we could get a real bargan here: fix our infastructure, drive unemployment way down, improve tax receipts at all levels of government, reduce the cost of unemployment spending (I’m for it when it is needed, but why keep doing the things that maintain high unemployment)reduce the cost of military expenses, reduce the cost of caring for an unending parade of maimed military personell and their dependents for the next 70 years, reduce the waste of human talent in the wars, and remove one of the reasons the world goes on hating the US. We might even have significant money left to spend on non-facility education expenses, like teachers and text books and field trips.

    • fausto412 says:

      I’ve been on unemployment for a few weeks when i got out of the Army. Uncle Sam was paying me like 21000 a year back then. my unemployment checks were about 200 bucks a week. that helped me eat and look for work…i was and still am very thankful for that. at no point did i go “man i am in the money, i’m going to chill now” why? because unemployment isn’t money you can live on…it’s money that helps you survive if you lucky enough.

  5. foosion says:

    We can fix our infrastructure now when everything is on sale, workers are available and can be hired for low prices, interest rates are low, etc., or we can fix when things are more expensive. It’s a good idea to act now, even ignoring the large benefits from directly increasing employment.

    The GOP answer is clear – wait until the sale is over and everything is more expensive to do what we must.

    Borrowing is a problem? By that logic, they’re against home mortgages and borrowing to finance college costs.

    • fausto412 says:

      treasuries are cheap! we can borrow cheap…this is the best excuse to do a ton of infrastructure spending…we get it on the cheap.
      but we won’t take advantage of cheap borrowing for the government because the VSP’s think that’s bad.

  6. fausto412 says:

    This all makes perfect sense to me, but i’ve been reading Krugman for 3 years now…along with all the links to other blogs that he provides and some Ezra Kline too.

    We are going to repeat 1973 or Japan’s lost Decade…so how do i make sure my 401k comes out on top the next 15 years?

    the GOP’s idea bank is empty. all they have to in effect tax cuts and cut spending, big government bad! i mean we are dealing with selfish cave men here.

  7. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    With all due respect, things like this:

    i know…show me the money. These are public goods, and thus private industry will underinvest in them.

    I see no convincing evidence that Eric Cantor, Mike Pearce, Paul Ryan, Boehner, or other GOP representatives that I spot on news videos have a functioning concept of ‘public goods’.

    They are the logical result of ‘The Me Generation’ on steroids to the 10th exponential power. Add in lies about WMD in Iraq, no-bid contracts, unpaid for wars, etc, and I suspect that the damaged trust in government is one more layer in this mess.

    And apart from the bridge that fell into the Mississippi in Minneapolis, I really haven’t seen the Dems create a strong narrative to unpack why and how the outdated ideology is dysfunctional.

    Perhaps a story about what America might have looked like
    — without public power
    — without the Columbia River Dam system
    — without the interstate road system
    — without FDA food safety
    — without public education… etc
    would have looked like.

    America would have been a ‘third world’ nation, but these foolish ideologues running the House don’t seem to grasp that fact. (Lack of imagination, for starters…)

    The Dems need to tell better stories, IMVHO.

  8. jonathan says:

    China is in the process of building 60 nuclear plants at a pace of 6 per year. Joke all you want about radiation, but their infrastructure will soon make ours look pathetic. They are also the largest producer of wind turbines. We will be paying vast sums to OPEC for oil while the Chinese will be energy independent. Competitive failure.

    I was born in the 1950’s. The interstate highway system was built under DDE and a largely GOP Congress. Would not happen today; the GOP would not support this level of federal spending, the federal commitments, the federal mandates for highway construction.

    I see much of this as symptoms of success. We have clean air and clean water so obviously the EPA is junk. People don’t remember we have the EPA because we didn’t have clean water and clean air. Not a long time ago, but well within my lifetime. We have an interstate highway system so obviously we don’t need the federal government involved in transportation. We had a brideg collapse in Minnesota and there are hundreds of large bridges in just as bad shape. Meanwhile, China is constructing vast networks of roads and advanced cable stay bridges so their internal distribution network will soon be more advanced than ours.

    As for water, the report is about water delivery and purification systems. Those are in many cases way beyond their projected lifetimes. NYC relies on large systems over a century old. Other big cities are no better. A single valve broke outside Boston last year and cut off water for hundreds of thousands. Still other systems are running out of water in part because the water delivery system has so many leaks that conservation measures aren’t enough to prevent draining the aquifers. As for health, there have been breakouts of public water infection, notably giardia in Milwaukee. (Not long ago, btw.)

    The point about infrastructure is competition. We aren’t getting better. We aren’t standing still. We’re going backwards and the world is moving past us.

  9. P K Moa says:


    Given these needs, why didn’t Obama target the stimulus to infrastructure? Seems to make a lot more sense than sending it down the green energy rat-hole.

  10. rjs says:

    another proof that the US is living below it’s means:

    “The US press was awash with claims over the weekend that the US was “living beyond” its “means” and that “will not be viable for a whole lot longer”. One senior US central banker claimed that the way to resolve the sluggish growth was to increase interest rates to ensure people would save. Funny, the same person also wants fiscal policy to contract. Another fiscal contraction expansion zealot. Pity it only kills growth. Another commentator – chose, lazily – to be the mouthpiece for the conservative lobby and wrote a book review that focused on the scary and exploding public debt levels. Apparently, this public debt tells us that the US is living beyond its means. Well, when I look at the data I see around 16 per cent of available labour idle in the US and capacity utilisation rates that are still very low. That tells me that there is a lot of “means” available to be called into production to generate incomes and prosperity. A national government doesn’t really have any “means”. It needs to spend to get hold off the means (production resources). Given the idle labour and low capacity utilisation rates the government in the US is clearly not spending enough. The US is currently living well below its means. But the US government can always buy any “means” that are available for sale in US dollars and if there is insufficient demand for these resources emanating from the non-government sector then the US government can bring those idle “means” into productive use any time it chooses.”


  11. Jeff H says:

    If we would have only elected John McCain. We wouldn’t have had a problem with deficit spending, as to Republicans (when they are in office) deficits don’t matter.

    Maybe if we elect Palin she will do like she did in Alaska and tax the hell out of the oil companies and then send checks to all of us for $3k+ per person.

    Cause you know, it’s not socialism if they do it…

  12. Larry in Hawaii says:

    Why wasn’t that a shovel-ready project? Didn’t we just blow 800 billion on “stuff”? The world was moving too fast for planning-based solutions way back in the 70s. It’s moving much faster now.

    Isn’t the reason that we have no money for infrastructure simply that we’re spending those dollars on seniors instead? Defense and infrastructure as a % of GDP are down since the good old days. What is up?

    I read the other day that nationwide, the decline in the number of pre-college students is approximately matched by the net hires of pre-college ed staff. Does that work for you?