Now is as good a time as any to talk about America’s failing infrastructure, and the possibility that President Donald Trump could make good on a promise to rebuild America.
Once upon a time, the United States faced down an existential crisis by making massive investments in its people and its future. It’s been done before; it can be done again.
It’s hard to travel anywhere in the Western United States and step into a park — say, Red Rock Amphitheater outside Denver, where the Beatles once played — and not enjoy the handiwork of the Civilian Conservation Corps. And it’s hard to fly around the country into cities like New York without landing at an airport built by its cousin, the Works Progress Administration. As we inch towards the New Deal’s 100th anniversary, the thousands of public works projects constructed as part of it have stood the test of time.
Take 10 minutes today and spend some time clicking around a positively mesmerizing website called The Living New Deal. I have a screen shot of its interactive map above. Thousands of communities enjoyed a direct benefit from WPA and CCC projects. You probably used at least one of them in the past few months, and probably more. Really, please go click around and see what a focused, massive investment can accomplish.
Donald Trump made a lot of promises on the campaign trail, but none more popular — or with more across-the-aisle appeal — than his bold words around infrastructure investment. He called for $1 trillion spending on America. Trump was (and is, still) just the kind of president who could pull off something so grand.
Whenever government spending comes up, Republicans and conservatives spend a lot of time talking themselves into circles and purity tests that ultimately make it impossible for them to support any kind of new Uncle Sam project. No traditional Republican could pass such a program and survive the beating she or he would take from fiscal conservatives. And similarly, no liberal Democrat could survive that kind of attack, either. At least, that’s been the political assessment so far.
But Trump was different. He didn’t need old-guard conservatives to win election, and he’s not beholden to them now. He could build just the kind of consensus to rebuild America.
On this count, I haven’t given up yet. Trump’s initial budget gave me pause, because his $1 trillion investment in America turned out to be more like a $200 billion investment and wishful-thinking $800 million in contributions from private industry, to be repaid by privatization of roads and bridges — a disaster, in my book. But at least it’s a conversation starter.
To get anywhere, however — to get past the point where we keep seeing disasters and keep reading stories about engineering plans that would have helped but instead stayed tucked on a shelf — America has to pass one very big hurdle. We have to believe that sometimes, government and government workers can do good things.
These days, the only punching bag more popular than journalists is government workers. They are the butt of every joke, the poster child for laziness and inefficiency. This is annoying and discouraging to all the thousands of fine people I know every day who toil in obscurity trying to do their often moderately-compensated jobs well.
But much worse that that, this cynicism has crippled America.
Resentment towards government workers and government itself is leading us to ruin. While talk show hosts yell at each other and commenters scream in all caps that they’d do pretty much anything to avoid letting one more government employee get a job, our airports and trains have become a laughingstock on the world stage.
No one is suggesting that more government work would solve everything. But governments do solve some things; infrastructure that enables commerce chief among them.
Also, no one is suggesting that better engineering would have spared the Houston are this week. You can only build levees so high. As many have said, dump four feet of water on any city in America, and it would flood. On the other hand, it’s not a binary choice. Houston, clearly, would have not fared so badly had its developers not been allowed to gorge on land needed for water absorption.
Yes, it’s too soon to talk about flood control projects while people are still homeless from that storm, but then, it’s never a good time to talk about something “boring” like infrastructure — and with attention spans so short, now is the time to have this national conversation.
We have to get over our distaste for government work. We can all bicker back and forth about government projects, corruption during the New Deal, and who’s to blame for floods and hurricanes. It’s true that the CCC or WPA structure wouldn’t work now, for a variety of reasons (unemployment is too low, for example). But now is not the time for black-and-white arguments and rhetorical sparring. Now is the time to get to work fixing things. President Trump, now is the time for bold steps forward. It begins by restoring people’s faith that investment in government projects is not a waste, but will be money well spent. It begins by ending the the culture of cynicism that has destroyed our faith in ourselves, each other, and in Uncle Sam.
If you still haven’t done it, please do so now: Stare for a while at the Living New Deal project map. Think about the men and women who built those parks and airports and sewage plants in the 1930s, and thank them in your head. Then ask yourself: When folks in 2117 browse this kind of map, what will they see what we built?
For an excellent discussion about the New Deal, read this Popular Mechanics article.
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