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Friday, July 20, 2007

The Decaying Infrastructure Of Complex Society

NYC Pipe Explosion
From the War Room, by Tim Grieve at
Wednesday, in New York, a pipe installed in 1924 finally gave way and ended up killing someone. Imagine that. They built things to last in those days, but I doubt anyone ever dreamed that they would have to last for nearly a century.
Given that it is an American tradition to do what is necessary, now, for the gilding of the currently ascendant generation, future generations be damned, I concur that any dreaming about the future maintenance of vital infrastructure was probably not happening, much. Perhaps the engineers themselves exercised professional due diligence with these thoughts in mind, but certainly the commissioners of these great works were not distracted by such concerns.

However, he goes on:
Rick Perlstein has been writing about what he calls "E. coli conservatism" for a while over at his blog the Big Con, where, among other things, he's chronicling the increasing incidence of ... sinkholes. That's right, these days it's quite common to be driving or walking along a street in Anytown USA and be suddenly sucked into the ground because of the neglected infrastructure of our towns and cities. You can read about it in local papers every day. Wednesday he wrote:
We've warned here again and again about the decrepitude of our underground infrastructure, about what happens when a nation consecrates itself to no higher domestic goal than the cutting of taxes. New York had a Republican mayor, in fact, who now spends his days boasting that he cut taxes 23 times. Cut spending, too, he's proud to say.
This is the legacy of the past 25 years of neglect. We shouldn't be relieved when we see a huge cloud of smoke and dust... It's a warning as important as a magenta terror alert or the rumblings of Michael Chertoff's gut. There is a price to pay for this free lunch the conservatives have been selling for the past 30 years and the bill is coming due.
Now, I'm one to pile on this new brand of conservatism that has vowed to drown government in a bathtub, and certainly since at least Katrina we have seen the stunning incompetence which results from such a "philosophy." However, it is profoundly dishonest to lay the blame for our decaying infrastructure solely at the feet of "30 years" of neglectful conservatism.

First of all, this neglect has been going on since the day the ribbon was cut on each and every mega-project, be it a dam, a bridge, a subway, a railroad, a sewage system, natural gas lines, etc., etc. The marginal returns realized from diligent maintenance of infrastructure is simply not robust enough to turn the heads of the captains of industry (and make no mistake that nearly all of these projects would not have even occurred except for the interests of big business, the public subsidy of capitalism is another American tradition.) So, of course, maintenance of these "public" projects is left to the public.

One problem with this dynamic is that no politician could ever successfully run on a platform of "maintenance" or status quo. The public will is not swayed by the mundane. And so we see our roads and bridges decay, slowly, inexorably, we as frogs in a slow boil. (The increasingly popular prescription canard of privatization of infrastructure is already showing how the profit motive only exacerbates decay.)

The larger question being ignored here is the inherent characteristics of complex societies, which I've discussed before here, here and here. In a growth-based system - a primary and fatal characteristic of all complex societies - there is a constantly decreasing marginal return on all activity, whether performed by profiteers or by public service. It is easier (and more "growth-oriented" ) to take it for granted that the toilets will flush for five more years, that the interstates can handle another decade of trucks pounding our goods cross-country, that the dam will hold another twenty years. Truly comprehensive maintenance is simply too expensive, and becomes increasingly more so in the face of profit lost during periodic shut-downs. People bitch and grumble about potholes, but that's nothing compared to the bellyaching when a street is shut down for a bit of profit-draining maintenance. That's just a political reality, emanating from the economic "reality."

This is why I tilt at windmills, aching to carve out an intelligent public space for making decisions, outside of the profit motive. And here is where it is easy to lay the blame on "conservatives" - especially of the "neo" sort - but the truth of the matter is more fundamentally in the DNA of America, in the DNA of each and every one of us.

The truth is, the infrastructure collapse is all but inevitable, and it would behoove us to, at the very least, see it for what it is. Finger-pointing gets us nowhere.

Update: Tom Hull posts on an AP story on decaying infrastructure and comments:
Needless to say, this is going to get worse before it gets better.

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