Infrastructure or Social Engineering?
During the unpleasantness of the recent presidential election and its aftermath, I was engaged with several of my relatives in an effort to steer them away from what I considered to be the “Dark Side.” It was a fruitless effort. As one nephew put it, he had his ideology and I mine. Perhaps that was true, but I wasn’t really sure what my ideology was.
I’ve played with many different schools of thought over my lifetime and considered myself an active Republican and Democrat at various times. But today as I consider ideology, I think it is best to say that my ideology is “Good Government” rather than any particular philosophical dogma.
This current ideology is based on a simple belief that government can be good. Now it can also be bad when done poorly.
An example of bad could well be seen in Texas recently, shivering in the cold without running water, because its leaders seemed to feel that government was bad and allowed its power grid to fail by incompetence and isolationism. When inept, it certainly can be bad. A similar example may well be the early pandemic response or non-response by the former administration, which also seemed to take the government is bad mantra as its guiding principle.
As a government can be good advocate, I point to a handful of examples of Government taking action and boldly going where no prior governments have gone before them.
I will sketch four powerful examples, that I hope will make my point in the infrastructure realm.
The first example starred Abraham Lincoln. During the first year of the civil war, which certainly occupied much of his and the Congress's attention, he signed into law the Pacific Railway Act. That set into motion a public-private partnership, the goal of which was to connect the country by rail from the east coast to the west within ten years of its signing on July 1, 1862. A successful effort, the transcontinental railroad beat the estimated timetable and was completed in just seven years.
It did have a social engineering goal as well. Lincoln hoped it would serve to unite the nation and help the people of the West feel part of the nation as a whole. It also would facilitate the war effort by expanding the ability to move troops and supplies, but over time the value of the effort supported the westward migration and countless trillions of economic development and commerce. In hindsight, a good investment that paid off well.
In a similar effort, another president with vast war experience set in motion the National Defense Highway Act, which we know today as the interstate freeway system. Dwight Eisenhower struggled with logistics in Europe as well as with the German army. He understood not only the need but the value of a well-designed road system to move people and goods.
Anyone traveling the system today cannot help but notice the nation's vast fleet of semi-trucks hauling goods from one end of the nation to another. Each of those trucks represents commerce and jobs from one place going elsewhere to create more jobs and opportunities at their destination. The productivity of the freeway system compared to its predecessor network is incalculable. (At least by me- somewhere someone may well have attempted to calculate it — but I rest comfortably in asserting it must be huge.)
Did the Freeway system result in a restructuring of the social network as well? Certainly. While some may deplore some of the consequences and side effects, the economic benefit and the mobility it has permitted Americans is also clearly huge.
As costly as the system was to build, it is hard to imagine that the return on investment clearly justifies the rather sizable investment.
In my opening paragraphs, I cited the mismanagement of the Texas power grid. My third example similarly deals with electrical power, and how in 1936 the government stepped in and passed the Rural Electrification Act (REA). By then, electricity was hardly a new concept. Edison invented his light bulb in 1879, but your grandparents or great-grandparents on the farm were still using candles and kerosene lanterns for light. The milking machines had five fingers. Farming always tough, lacked the benefit of electrical power.
Via REA, the government made it possible for over 400 electrical cooperatives to be formed with government loans to connect far-flung farms to the transformative power of electricity. Today, much of rural America is still served by some of these pioneering cooperatives or their successors.
Did this constitute social engineering? Absolutely.
One of REA’s champions, George Norris of Nebraska claimed that rural Americans were not getting a “Fair Chance.” He is quoted as saying that men and women of rural America were “growing old prematurely and dying before their time.”
There can be no doubt that the electrification of rural America produced dramatic results in the lives of rural Americans and resulted in a significant improvement in not only their economy but the economics of the entire food chain throughout the nation.
Once again it is pretty clear that the benefits of this investment have paid off well for the entire nation and in particular, for the farmers and others living in rural Amerca.
In today’s world, we can imagine the need for this effort once again, not in bringing electricity to rural America, but broadband internet service. Once again the opportunity presents itself to give rural American’s a “Fair Chance” to participate effectively in the world’s commerce online. Allowing them to communicate effectively with the rest of urban America and the world.
My final example also deals with communications, this time via the mail. It pivots around a postage stamp issued in 1918. It was America’s first Air Mail stamp, famous for a single sheet of stamps in which the center illustrating of a Curtiss Jenny airplane was inverted. While the inverted stamp is famous among philatelists, its true significance is the role that the US Post Office played in supporting the development of aviation in America.
In aviation's early days, the post office was often the sole customer, which made building and flying airplanes economically feasible. Had it not been for airmail contracts the nation's early airlines and airplanes would not have developed as fast or as comprehensively throughout the nation.
The mail needed to go everywhere, and while the early priorities were clearly the bigger cities, the need to get mail to small towns as well as large lead to the development of airports in hamlets as well as cities.
Airmail pilots like Charles Lindbergh would go on to other adventure and fame, some less well known than Lindbergh formed the foundations of the nation’s war effort in World War II. Today, America’s aviation industry is a pillar of our economy, in no small part due to good government brought to the country via our Post Office.
Has aviation had a social engineering impact on America. Again, certainly.
There are of course many other examples that I might have picked, as a kid the first benefit I noticed of the space age was the orange Tang we had for breakfast. (oldsters like me will know what I am talking about.)
Government can, and in my opinion, should invest in the nation and its infrastructure. As I have demonstrated the benefits can be significant from an economic perspective and positive from a social aspect as well.
It is time to Build Back Better.