One of Trump’s regular campaign promises was major spending on American infrastructure. As recently as his “Not a State of the Union” address, he announced a plan to invest $1 trillion to rebuild our national infrastructure, adding that it would be done by American workers with American materials. Despite Mike Pence and Paul Ryan rising behind Trump to smile and clap approvingly, it’s worth remembering that former president Obama also promised infrastructure spending and was blocked at nearly every juncture by a Republican congress. Apparently it’s cool to improve our nation’s roads and bridges and create jobs under a Republican administration, but not when it’s a “tax and spend” wasteful Democrat doing the same thing, eh? Looking ahead, though, there’s a sticky wicket when it comes to these kind of expenditures that most people don’t think about. I call it the Infrastructure Trap.
It’s practically a given, straight-up common sense, that infrastructure projects are good for America. Roads in good repair are easier to travel, whether we’re taking the kids to visit Grandma or transporting nukes from hither to yon. While some infrastructure projects, like the electric grid and airports, are used mainly by large businesses to profit by selling their products, we mostly consider roads, bridges, levees, public parks, school buildings, sewers, and other shared resources to be part of the Commons. These are the improvements that are funded by the public that benefit all of us. Without public goods like these, we wouldn’t be nearly so prosperous in our private lives. Critics of public spending on the Commons like to snark that we know how to spend our money better than the government does, but most of us can’t individually fund the kinds of large projects that serve entire communities.
The Infrastructure Trap, however, is both the solution and the problem. I’ve been talking so far about the solutions that infrastructure provides, but what about the problems? There’s the cost, of course, but unless you’re a die-hard Libertarian (or a Republican congress under a Democratic president), these costs are easily considered an investment in our future that will provide a good return.
What most people don’t realize is that the Infrastructure Trap is a (mostly) permanent cost for a one-time solution. Think about it: when Dwight Eisenhower spearheaded the construction of the interstate highway system, there was an immense return right away. People and goods could travel across the country faster and more conveniently than ever before. That improvement could only happen once, though, but the cost of maintaining the interstate highways is permanent, at least as long as we want highways. Maintaining roads, fixing potholes, or even rebuilding whole sections will never give us the same leap in speed and convenience as they did when they were first built. At best, it’s a continual cost to maintain the status quo or avert the loss of the gains it first produced.
Over time, society gradually adopts more “solutions” like the Interstate: water treatment to give us clean drinking water, levees to hold back the floods, schools and hospitals to educate and heal us. Each of these comes with maintenance costs over time, and while times are good (like when we’re enjoying the first fruits of health and prosperity that these improvements bring), we are able and willing to pay to maintain them with the money rolling in. Eventually, we take these benefits for granted as perceived gains level off in a mature society with a decent standard of living. Once we’ve achieved the “good life,” though, these projects still need maintenance and repair. In the meantime, we’ve expanded our population and quality of life to absorb the material gains, and don’t have a lot to spare to repair and upgrade our common capital, at least not without making painful cuts elsewhere. Add in all the other things that we continuously pay for, and we reach the point of diminishing returns on civilization.
I know an hour and a half is a lot to spend watching a video, but in this lecture, Dr. Joseph Tainter, author of The Collapse of Complex Societies, explains the Infrastructure Trap in far more detail than is possible in a short overview like this article.
Collapse of Complex Societies by Dr. Joseph Tainter, posted by vlada888
In essence, we must decide at some point whether it is worth continuing to fund infrastructure or if we should invest instead in other, more locally important goals. If we don’t maintain our Commons, we will falter on the world stage as well as experience more problems in our homes and communities. On the other hand, if we keep pouring money into maintaining infrastructure for little additional gain, we’ll also falter and experience more problems.
Collapse sooner or collapse later? That’s the Infrastructure Trap.
Luckily, it appears as though President Trump is helping us make this decision. Despite repeated promises to fund infrastructure, Trump’s budget plan walks those promises back and introduces new cuts. Even the politically motivated infrastructure he’s already ordered, the Dakota Access pipeline, won’t use American steel as Trump promised us it would. It’s hard to like an oath breaker, but on the other hand, sooner or later we have to spring the Infrastructure Trap.