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The State of American Infrastructure
The collapse of the I-35 West bridge in Minneapolis in 2007 highlighted a silent but growing danger to the United States economy. For decades engineers and scientists had been warning that the lifespan of major construction projects launched in the 1930s and 1950s was coming to an end, and that major reinvestment in infrastructure upgrades was required to stave off a series of disasters across the United States. But political decision makers had not responded with anything more useful than offering bureaucratic approval for the reports, and little was done.
The bridge collapse in Minneapolis made it impossible to continue ignoring the problem, and it was not the last major event to highlight the decay of America's infrastructure. Small bridges like that over Garrard Creek in Washington State as well as the massive Bay Bridge that connects San Francisco to Oakland have failed in full or in part since 2007 simply due to the poor quality of routine repairs or heavy use. Other bridges have been lost to floods, and even more bridges have been damaged by earthquakes but merely shored up to keep them operating in the short term.
And bridge failures are not the only aspect of US infrastructure that is rapidly degrading. US roads are notoriously bad in many parts of the country. The railway system is beset with accidents. Airports are extremely busy, and there are growing concerns about the possibility of air accidents due to the crowded airspace. Telecommunications is yet another area of concern - the US is one of the worst rated industrialized nations when it comes to its wireless coverage and the availability of internet access. And this in the nation that has largely pioneered some of the most important technological innovations of the past century!
Clearly something needs to be done to reverse this trend of degradation and failure before it becomes absolutely chronic. But, naturally, this growing crisis comes as the US remains mired in an ongoing economic slump that is sapping public support for federal spending and forcing local governments across the country to retrench and cut programs that do not provide an immediate return on investment.
Paradoxically, it is this very economic mess that actually provides a golden opportunity for the United States to begin spending money and resources on infrastructure upgrades. In a time of wretched employment statistics and struggling industry, a renewed Works Progress Administration as used by the Roosevelt Administration in the Great Depression of the 1930s offers the possibility of both pulling the US out of its slump and renewing its core infrastructure systems at the same time.
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The Works Progress Administration of the 1930s
The Great Depression was one of the most critical points in US history, unique both in the depth of the economic pain felt by most citizens of the nation as well as the threat of social unrest that began to emerge in response to the ongoing stagnation. The inability of successive administrations to mitigate the pain of the Depression fed public dissatisfaction with the federal government and helped stimulate the growth of extremist groups ranging along the ideological spectrum from anarchists to fascists to communists. Germany and Italy had already regressed from nascent democratic forms of government to fascist dictatorships, and the Soviet Union happily backed communist parties worldwide in an attempt to provide for its own military and economic security. That the United States faced the threat of falling under the sway of a fascist or communist party has largely been buried due to the success of the Roosevelt administration in preserving capitalism and democracy, but at a time only seventy years after the Civil War the threat of the United States falling apart was very real.
The Works Progress Administration recognized the danger of masses of unemployed, desperate people. Not because they would seek to overthrow the government or turn to violence, but because they might be tempted to join and support radical parties that could promise them a better future. The Roosevelt Administration recognized that the US federal government was the only element of US society that could be sufficiently functional to pursue a nationwide effort of economic amelioration and investment. In addition, it recognized that the United States was still largely a rural, agricultural country that was not living up to its potential in terms of industrial production. Roads were bad in many parts of the country, and the rail system had only recently been fully extended to reach more remote areas. The ecological collapse in the Great Plains and the resulting Dust Bowl had also made swaths of heavily populated, formerly productive agricultural areas useless for their traditional purpose, and people were moving to cities in hopes of finding jobs and opportunities to build a new life.
So the administration embarked on the WPA: it would put any WPA supplicant to work building infrastructure that would provide a powerful base for the development of a fully industrialized country. It would give unemployed men a purpose in life, and help them earn wages and basic necessities.
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The Need For a WPA for the 2010s
A new WPA for American infrastructure holds significant promise for a nation that faces many of the same challenges as were experienced in the Great Depression.
First, although unemployment statistics are largely massaged by utilizing very specific economic definitions of what constitutes an unemployed individual - for example, the well-known caveat that someone who no longer seeks work is not considered "unemployed" by official counts - the depth of the employment problem since the Great Recession is still clear. Upwards of 25% of Americans are unemployed, underemployed, or so discouraged by failed job hunts that they've just given up. This is extremely disconcerting for both the unemployed and by society, because this approaches Great Depression levels. And in a society where few people are self-sufficient and rely on a steady income to buy food to eat, this is potentially catastrophic. In some sectors, like the construction and manufacturing industries, the pain is far worse than the averages signify.
Extremist groups are on the rise as well. Although the Tea Party would vehemently deny it is extremist in any way, historically speaking the people its rhetoric appeals to are those who are most vulnerable to populist, extreme groups: the unemployed and those who fear for the future. The longer people go without hope of living the life they'd come to expect was standard in American society, the more likely they will be to listen to someone - anyone - who promises something better.
The 1930s are back with a vengeance, and something must be done. A new WPA offers hope on all counts.
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A New WPA and America's Infrastructure
A new WPA would scoop up the long term unemployed from the housing, manufacturing, and construction sectors, especially those with relevant skills in construction and manufacturing, and put some of them to work churning out steel, concrete, and other construction materials while others would begin using this material to start a comprehensive updating and reconstruction of American infrastructure. It would utilize government funds, possibly money budgeted for unemployment compensation, retraining, and public assistance and pay people to work in the WPA.
Workers whose experience was in technology and engineering could be employed to supervise less skilled workers or in completely non-traditional infrastructure projects like the expansion of fiber-optic connections to every community in America and the construction of microwave towers to expand cellular service and the reach of wireless internet connections. Computer networks in schools and public agencies could be completely updated and expanded to promote efficiency.
Disaster retrofitting could also employ many people. Much of the Pacific Northwest will experience an earthquake the size of those that devastated Indonesia in 2004 and much of Japan in 2010, and this earthquake is very likely going to arrive in the next hundred years. Fixing buildings in Seattle and Portland is a great need so that they will be more likely to withstand the event when it comes. The quake will occur offshore, so tsunami shelters could protect coastal residents. And the Northwest isn't the only region not traditionally associated with quakes that needs to be looked at: evidence points to major earthquakes in the Midwest and Atlantic coast, and buildings need to be retrofitted to handle them. Environmental catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina threaten every city on the Atlantic seaboard, and it couldn't hurt to begin building emergency facilities capable of mitigating such a disaster striking the Chesapeake Bay, New York, or New England.
Environmental restoration is another potential avenue of employment and investment. Replanting forests and returning marginal agricultural land to wetlands would return much of the US to a wildlife-friendly state, which benefits property values and the quality of life nationwide.
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Additional Possibilities of the WPA
A new WPA for American infrastructure would also be capable of promoting investment in America's human infrastructure. If whole families composed of WPA supplicants were relocated to help work on big projects, their children could be enrolled in schools that were geared towards meeting their needs. Both they and their kids could benefit from targeted educational programs and training regimens that would help children and adults alike prepare for the post-WPA world, when the economy would be improving again and be demanding people with higher skillsets. Imagine if the next generation of scientists and engineers could be trained in a new WPA, who would have close, personal experience with major projects and thereby a good understanding of the many issues that face them.
Of course, there is the nagging problem of how to pay for a new WPA. But for all the concern about public debt, politicians fail to point out that there is such a thing as good debt. Few companies operate solely based on their cash reserves, and no startup company does. Borrowing money to buy a home is qualitatively different than borrowing money to rent a home. Debt that is incurred at reasonable rates and that actually provides a tangible benefit is not a bad thing. Debt incurred to support frivolous consumption is the problem that got America into its current mess, not federal debt spent on scientific research or infrastructure renewal.
So levy limited, temporary taxes on industries that will benefit from infrastructure upgrades, and punish companies, governments, and people that over-contribute to their degradation. Redirect military funding away from building military infrastructure like bases and tanks that are good for only one thing, and not for producing value-added goods and services.
A new WPA is sorely needed, and would be a brave step towards reconstructing America. All that is needed is a political party with the will to initiate it, and see it through.