Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

02 June 2019

Infrastructure


For an analysis why Nancy Pelosi is right on impeachment, click here. For an explanation how abortion has ruined our national politics and how we could recover, click here. For an essay on why we must compete peacefully with China and what we must do to win, click here. For an essay on Elizabeth Warren’s qualifications for the presidency, click here. For brief descriptions of and links to recent posts, click here. For an inverse-chronological list with links to all posts after January 23, 2017, click here. For a subject-matter index to posts before that date, click here.

To skip to the principal post on infrastructure, click here.

In Memoriam: June 4, 1989

No blog or news medium worthy of the name could fail to recall the Tiananmen Square Massacre on its thirtieth anniversary.

In a single day, the Chinese Communist Party massacred hundreds, maybe thousands, of China’s own most courageous and creative youth. Ever since, its cadres have tried to pretend the Massacre never happened. They’ve made believe that prosperity for the masses can excuse one of human history’s worst atrocities.

Why was the Massacre so terrible? Today and traditionally, China has touted itself as one of the world’s oldest and most venerable civilizations, perhaps the most worthy. But what civilization achieves or prolongs greatness by slaughtering its own most promising youth?

We Americans are bad enough. We now burden our youth with monstrous debt for the education that we owe them as our biological successors. But we don’t murder them—even with Donald Trump as our supreme leader. That sort of atrocity demands constant remembrance, until our entire species vows eternally to shun it, just as today’s Germans repent their forebears’ Nazi Holocaust.

Yes, China has pulled more human beings out of extreme poverty than any other society in human history. But that doesn’t justify the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Human morality is not an accounting ledger. It’s a constant call to justice, mercy and tolerance.

Nor can prosperity justify imprisoning and “re-educating” over a million Muslim Uighurs simply for who they are and what they believe. Once we Europe-derived Americans did that sort of thing with our own Native Americans. But we did it in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, not the twenty-first.

Truly civilized people grow with history. They remember it and learn from it. They do not erase it. China will never deserve its two-character self designation as the “Central Kingdom” (中国) until it comes to terms with all of its tumultuous past.

So for the time being there are moral, as well as economic, reasons for us Americans to keep our best ideas to ourselves, and to keep our best microchips out of Huawei’s hands.

Orwell predicted that our species’ most glowing achievements—the understanding and power of science and technology—would be used as blunt instruments to crush the individual organism. His metaphor was a boot perpetually stomping on a human face.

We cannot let that become our species’ epitaph. The dream of a global society of equals will survive the twisted regimes of both Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. We must keep the dream alive and work to make it real.

Endnote: a sobering reminder. Once we Americans did murder our own promising youth. It was a small massacre, but a real one, and on the same day of the month as Tiananmen. On May 4, 1970, members of our Ohio State National Guard killed four students and wounded nine, ending a protest at Kent State University against our bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

Unlike China with Tiananmen, we don’t suppress the memory of this tragedy. We recall it every year, especially every tenth year.

As we continue to collect the remains of our own dead from Southeast Asia, we also recall all the deaths and suffering caused by our bombing, our land mines and our Agent Orange defoliant. That painful honesty is responsible, at least in part, for our strong current friendships with modern Vietnam and its neighbors, and for our reluctance ever again to make war in Asia. Our species can learn from its mistakes, but only if it faces them squarely.


The principal post on infrastructure follows:

If the Democrats want to regain their mojo and boost their chances of taking the White House in 2020, the best thing they could do right now is pass a big infrastructure bill through the House. Then they could dare McConnell to stall and/or Trump to veto it. Here’s how this tactic would work to the Dems’ advantage.

Forty percent of our people, give or take, adore Donald Trump and trust him to bring their good jobs back with tariffs. Our business community, which usually leans Republican, is fearful. Didn’t tariffs (of the Smoot-Hawley variety) help bring on humanity’s most terrible war? Does Trump really believe that foreign manufacturers pay the tariffs, and not American consumers who buy imported products after tariffs increase their prices? Will raising the prices of so many things really help boost commerce? (The law of supply and demand, which tells us that more expensive stuff sells less in volume, suggests not.)

None of this uncertainty infects infrastructure projects, which have worked before. During the Great Depression, an “alphabet soup” of so-called “make work” projects (CCC and WPA), helped put millions of unemployed young men back to work. In every recession since, similar projects employed people in two ways. First, they provided good jobs where broken markets didn’t. Second, by building more modern, streamlined and efficient infrastructure, they boosted commerce further by making it easier and simpler after private markets eventually surged back.

That’s what every infrastructure program in our nation’s history has done, from the Erie Canal, through the Transcontinental Railway, to the Interstate Highway System, the FAA-administered airways, and the Internet. Build it well, and they will come. Trade and commerce will grow, and with it our economy.

But our economy’s doing just fine, you say. Who needs government?

Economists do say that employment is “full.” But the jobs suck. Many are part time and offer no benefits. Millions of people counted as “employed” are also “underemployed.” Many of them are the ones who took a flyer on Trump.

If the men who used to work on assembly lines building cars, trucks, planes and appliances were happy driving for Uber or greeting customers at Wal-Mart, from whom would Trump get his support? Who would be his “base”? The very persistence of Trump’s popularity disproves the current job market’s attraction for the skilled workers who used to make things and now are unemployed or underemployed.

The workers who voted for Trump on a wish and a prayer want real jobs, like those they used to have in GM and Ford plants. They don’t want jobs in the “gig economy,” with no perks or benefits, or jobs that only high-school students used to take in summer. They want a middle-class lifestyle. Their wants underlie the entire Trump presidency.

If Trump’s tariffs hurt our trading partners badly enough, maybe they might bring some manufacturing jobs back. But four things have to happen before they can. First, the tariffs have to be high enough to cancel out the differences between manufacturing costs abroad—in places like China and Mexico—and costs here at home, including labor. Second, the tariffs have to stay high for long enough to convince American and foreign capitalists to invest in new manufacturing inside the United States and to sell or abandon their investments in China and Mexico. Third, those new plants have to be designed, funded and built here. Finally, there has to be a market, inside the United States, for the products made here at the higher prices, regardless of changes in foreign manufacturing, technology and consumer tastes.

Those are a lot “ifs” for investors to stomach, let alone for desperate workers to wait for their jobs to become real. Even if all four ifs came together, good jobs would take years to show up.

Unfortunately, we Americans don’t have years. If we make no changes powerful enough to strip Trump of much of his 40% support before 2020, we can kiss not just our manufacturing goodbye, but our democracy, too.

In stark contrast, infrastructure demands little or no lead time. There are multiple projects in every state—practically every American county—just waiting to be begun. Fund the money and write the contracts, and the jobs can start in mere months.

These jobs are not precisely in manufacturing, but they are the next best thing. They require skilled workers with practical knowledge of earth moving, operating heavy machinery, construction, electricity, carpentry, woodworking, ironworking, cement, electrical power, and electronics—all the stuff of engineering, construction and building that goes into roads, bridges, runways, aqueducts, gas lines, oil pipelines, lighting, power, renewables, flood control, sewage management, and air traffic control. And when this work requires manufactured items, like steel beams, cable, asphalt, solar arrays, windmills, and radar electronics, the contracts can stipulate that they be American-made, thereby multiplying the impact on American jobs.

The most important thing to understand about infrastructure is that it can’t be outsourced. You can’t build or repair a bridge over the Mississippi from China or from Mexico, even if you buy some materials there. You can’t build or repair infrastructure over the Internet. And if you write the laws and contracts funding the infrastructure projects properly, you can require all or most supplies and materials to come from the United States as well.

Best of all, because we have serious infrastructure deficiencies everywhere, most workers won’t have to relocate to get these good jobs. They can work from where they already live. Try that with fracking in North Dakota.

The second most important thing to understand about infrastructure is that it’s an easy job for legislators. All the hard work has already been done for them, by professionals.

A non-profit professional society called the American Society of Civil Engineers keeps tabs on our nation’s infrastructure and its many current deficiencies. It does this monitoring mostly on a non-profit basis, just as lawyers’ societies like the American Bar Association do work pro bono publico (for the public good) analyzing deficiencies in law and suggesting corrective legislation. The massive contribution of professional expertise and hard work by these and other nonprofit professional societies, mostly for free, is one of the best-kept secrets of our nation’s success. No competent legislator should pass these freebies by.

Our American Society of Civil Engineers produces an annual “Report Card” on our nation’s infrastructure and publishes it on the Internet. In addition to a national summary, the “Report Card” has 50 state-by-state summaries, at an impressive level of detail. These summaries reflect diligent expert fact-gathering and other work that legislators and their staffs don’t have to do. If they want more detail or specific recommendations where best to start in each state or county, they could hire local civil engineers with pre-existing knowledge—and likely pre-done paperwork—as consultants.

So insofar as legislators are concerned, creating good jobs for skilled workers building or rebuilding infrastructure requires only three steps. First, they have to decide it’s worth doing. Second, they have to decide how much to spend first. Just repealing half the Trump Tax Giveaways to the rich and corporations, for example, could produce $ 1 trillion (with a “t”). Finally, they must decide what projects in each state to prioritize.

Relying on the civil engineers’ nonpartisan expertise would be a good way to bring their knowledge to bear and keep petty politics at bay. The pols should start with the projects that professional engineers say would most reduce dangers to citizens’ life and limb, such as filtering poisoned water (as in Flint, Michigan) and reducing the risks of dilapidated bridges collapsing.

Why hasn’t any of this happened yet? Beats hell out of me. You would think a bill like this would be the first to come through the Democratic House, so the Dems could dare McConnell to sit on it and/or Trump to veto it. A straight-up infrastructure bill, funding part of the nonpartisan recommendations of the American Society of Civil Engineers, would be as pure an economic good-jobs bill, with as little reason for partisan wrangling, as one could imagine.

I can think of only three things that might have prevented this from happening. First, pols of both parties may want to do only favors they can trade off for power, rather than follow the recommendations of experts who make it their business (plus go through five years of engineering school) to know what needs doing first. Second, knowing as much about civil engineering as the average engineer knows about abortion policy, the average pol might have feared stepping outside his or her own narrow field of expertise. Third, having become accustomed to useless and endless ideological wrangling as a way of life, legislators might not recognize a grand opportunity to do good for their constituents if it rose up and bit them on their behinds.

Maybe I’m just a cockeyed optimist, as well as a self-confessed idealist. But back in December 2016, while I was cheerfully giving our new president-elect the benefit of the doubt, I assumed that infrastructure building would be his first and quickest way of rewarding the displaced workers who elected him.

That still hasn’t happened. Not only has Trump not made infrastructure a priority. He recently walked away from dealing with eager Democrats unless and until they refuse to stop investigating him for entirely unrelated crimes.

That walkaway is the greatest political gift—the clearest political blunder—that Trump has made in his sixteen months in office. All the Dems have to do to exploit it is look at the Civil Engineers’ website (and maybe hire a few as consultants), and pass an infrastructure bill of their own through the House, with a bottom line of at least a trillion dollars.

Then when McConnell stalls it in the Senate and/or Trump vetoes it, they can play the clip of Trump’s walkaway in an endless loop. And if McConnell and Trump played so untrue to form as to pass the House Bill into law, the Dems could take credit for it and use Trump’s walkaway as proof of their merit.

Think the Trumpets might balk a bit at Trump snatching good skilled jobs from their hands at the last minute? Their angst might be less widespread than their 2018 worry about lost health insurance or its failure to cover pre-existing conditions, but for those who lost jobs or whose factories closed the angst would be even more devastating. You can still afford some health care as long as you have a good job. Try going to the doctor when you have no job, or when your job barely pays for rent and food.

If the Dems don’t do this simple thing, and pronto, they will have passed into the Second Circle of Dante’s Political Hell. That’s where perpetual hand-wringing, abstract ideological wrangling, and a ceaseless quest for yet more power with no clear use for it replace concrete thought, common sense and any hope of practical benefit for voters. What have the Dems got to lose?

Endnote: A one trillion dollar appropriation would fund a mere half of the $2 trillion ten-year investment that the Civil Engineers calculate we need to raise our nation’s infrastructure out of its present D+ grade slump.

Links to Popular Recent Posts

For an analysis why Nancy Pelosi is right on impeachment, click here.
For an explanation how demagoguing the issue of abortion has ruined our national politics and brought us our two worst presidents, and how we could recover, click here.
For analysis of the Huawei Tech Block and its necessity for maintaining our innovative infrastructure, click here.
For ten reasons, besides global warming, to dump oil as a fuel for ground transportation, click here.
For discussion why we must cooperate with China and how we can compete successfully with China, click here.
For reasons why Trump’s haphazard trade war will not win the competition with China, click here.
For a deeper discussion of how badly we Americans have failed to plan our future, click here.
For an essay on Elizabeth Warren’s qualifications for the presidency, click here.
For comment on how not doing our jobs has brought us Americans low, click here.
To see how modern politics has come to resemble the Game of Thrones, click here.
For a discussion of the waste of energy and fossil fuels caused by unneeded long-range batteries in electric cars, click here.
For a discussion why Democrats should embrace the long campaign season and make no premature moves, click here.
For a discussion how Trump and Brexit have put the tree world into free fall, click here.
For a review of how our own American acts help create our president’s claimed “invasion” of Central American migrants, click here.
For a review of basic facts that must inform any type of universal health insurance, click here.
For a discussion of how the West’s fall and China’s rise affect the chances of our species’ survival, click here.
For a discussion of what the Mueller Report is and how its release could affect American politics, click here.
For a note on the Mueller Report as the beginning of a process, click here.
For comment on the special candidacies of Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg, click here.
For reasons why the twin 737 Max 8 disasters should inspire skepticism and caution with regard to potentially lethal uses of software and AI, click here.
For my message to Southwest Airlines on grounding the 737 Maxes, click here.
For an example of even the New York Times spewing propaganda, click here.
For means by which high-school teachers could help save American democracy, click here.
For a modern team of rivals that might comprise a dream Cabinet in 2021, click here.
For an analysis of the global decline of rules-based civilization, click here. For a brief note on avoiding health lobbying Armageddon, click here.
For analysis of how to save real news and America’s ability to see straight, click here.
For an update on how Zuckerberg scams advertisers, click here.
For analysis of how Facebook scams voters and society, click here.
For the consequences of Trump’s manufactured border emergency, click here.
For a brief note on Colin Kaepernick’s good work and settlement with the NFL, click here.
For an outline of universal health insurance without coercion, disruption of satisfactory private insurance, or a trace of “socialism,” click here.
For analysis of the Virginia blackface debacle, click here. For an update on how Twitter subverts politics, click here.
For analysis of women’s chances to take the presidency in 2020, click here.
For brief comment on Trump’s State of the Union Speech and Stacey Abrams’ response for the Dems, click here.
For reasons why the Huawei affair requires diplomacy, not criminal prosecution, click here. For how Speaker Pelosi has become a new sheriff in town, click here.
For how Trump’s misrule could kill your kids, click here.
For comment on MLK Day 2019 and the structural legacies of slavery, click here.
For reasons why the partial government shutdown helps Dems the longer it lasts, click here.
For a discussion of how our national openness hurts us and what we really need from China, click here.
For a brief explanation of how badly both Trump and his opposition are failing at “the art of the deal,” click here.
For a deep dive into how Apple tries to thwart Google’s capture of the web-browser market, click here.
For a review of Speaker Pelosi’s superb qualifications to lead the Democratic Party, click here.
For reasons why natural-gas and electric cars are essential to national security, click here.
For additional reasons, click here.
For the source of Facebook’s discontents and how to save democracy from it, click here.
For Democrats’ core values, click here.
The Last Adult is Leaving the White House. Who will Shut Off the Lights?
For how our two parties lost their souls, click here.
For the dire portent of Putin’s high-fiving the Saudi Crown Prince, click here.
For updated advice on how to drive on the Sun’s power alone, or without fossil fuels, click here.
For a 2018 Thanksgiving Message, click here.

Links to Posts since January 23, 2017

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