This op-ed is the fourth in a five-part series by Strong Towns founder and president, Charles Marohn, first posted on StrongTowns.org beginning on April 12, 2021.
These are investments that leading economists agree will give Americans good jobs now and will pay off for future generations by leaving the country more competitive and our communities stronger…
— The American Jobs Plan
In 2014, I was part of a forum on transportation put on by The Washington Post titled, “America Answers: Fix My Commute.” It featured some of the biggest names in transportation and infrastructure including Anthony Foxx, the Secretary of Transportation, one of his predecessors in the job, Andrew Card, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, and the vice president of the United States at the time, Joe Biden.
To say I was an outlier in this group was an understatement, not only due to my unknown status but also because my views were the antithesis of those presented throughout the day. Vice President Biden gave a rousing performance, without any notes or teleprompter, speaking passionately about the benefits of infrastructure investments, culminating with this classic line familiar to any Strong Towns Podcast listener:
It all comes back to the oldest story in the history of this country. Build, build, build, build. That’s the story.
I agree that is the story, but it’s not a story to automatically be proud of. It’s a story of might and resources elevated over brains and tactics. It’s a story of working twice as hard to achieve half as much… of squandering a great endowment and having not nearly enough to show for it.
There is a noble story of boldness and innovation buried in that narrative, but it’s not rooted in “build, build, build, build.” That version feels like an extension of the insecurity and anxiety from the Cold War, the unchecked momentum of a great rivalry with the Soviet Union—an experience not shared, and thus unfamiliar, to half of today’s Americans. “Build, build, build, build,” feels like an old story, one inherited and then adopted by a now receding generation.
What is the next story?
English physicist Ernest Rutherford is said to have told his colleagues during World War II, “Gentlemen, we’ve run out of money. It is time to start thinking.” It’s fair to suggest that they might have reached this conclusion sooner had they not all been men, but regardless, it is a reminder that a lack of resources, not an abundance, is what spurs innovation in complex systems. This is especially true when those systems are mature, where the momentum of past decisions can make the present paradigm seem self-evident, even when it is a massive experiment being tested on us in real time.
In our case, scarcity has driven innovation, but our new ideas have mostly come in the realm of financialization, modernizing age-old schemes that increase the supply of currency and make it feel like we can get something for nothing. There is no need to reform anything when you can access all the capital you need to allocate toward fixing your prior mistakes. If you believe infrastructure spending is about capital flow and the velocity of money instead of making high-returning investments to build wealth and prosperity, then why labor over changing the system? It already works perfectly for your needs.
For that group of infrastructure advocates, there are plenty of things in the American Jobs Plan that look like reform. There is the emphasis on union jobs and on addressing racial injustice, neither of which require significant changes to programs, funding formulas, or the types of projects built, but they sure make the lack of substantive reform in the American Jobs Act easier to market. (Think I’m wrong? Let’s see what happens with the I-49 Inner City Connector project in Shreveport.)
Ways of transporting oneself that minimize environmental impacts.
849. Electric vehicles#generationE pic.twitter.com/8dRlmfeNzw
— Charles Marohn (@clmarohn) April 6, 2021
Then there is the commitment to electrifying vehicles which, again, is very marketable, but in practical terms is a lot like switching from Coke to Cherry Coke as part of a weight loss plan. We’re not destroying the environment simply because our cars spew carbon; we’re destroying the environment because it requires a significant car trip for modern Americans to do things our ancestors could do…