Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Fixing Our Infrastructure

Virtually everyone in America agrees that we need to repair/update at least some of our infrastructure: roads, power lines, water pipes, cable/telephone wires, etc.

But there is very little agreement on how and when we ought to undertake these projects. Too many people think we ought to wait until a problem arises before we commit large amounts to make such improvements.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it: that’s their mantra.

And there’s something to be said for that philosophy. However, just because a water pipe, for example, hasn’t failed yet doesn’t mean we ought to ignore it until it does. The cost of updating water pipes and bridges and numerous other pieces of infrastructure is usually much greater after they fail than before – and the societal cost in inconvenience and temporary solutions is always more.

So why can’t we fix these problems?

I believe it’s about more than just prioritizing. If it were only that, we’d have fixed at least some of the problems long ago. No, instead, it’s about an inherent difference in the way some of us see government. Some of us believe it ought to be as small as possible, only doing the absolute minimum (defense and keeping the peace, the two most notable elements of this mindset).

Others believe government ought to do more: provide a safety net, regulate industries that have a tendency toward monopolies, level out the inequities that have built up over several lifetimes of rule by politicians in the pockets of special interest groups, etc.

Since there exists this major philosophical difference, what tends to happen is nothing. The status quo becomes our default framework – fix when broken, never before.

Older generations were much more willing to engage in large projects for the sake of improving the country: building the railroad and highway systems, for example. Yet those projects were also championed by special interests that stood to benefit the most from them. The majority of the population only benefited years later.

Does that make them suckers or us fools?

Consider the stadiums that the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL coerce us into funding. This same kind of argument is used to get those deals done. “If we don’t build now to keep/acquire the team, we’ll lose out and we’ll end up paying a lot more down the line when another opportunity comes along.”

Or “This is a community resource that benefits us all even though it benefits the owners much more than it benefits the rest of us.”

My point is that we’re capable of this type of rationalization and prioritization. We can do it if we want to. We just have to want to. And at this time in our history, not enough of us do.

But here’s the thing: the need to fix our infrastructure isn’t going away. We can put off the date a few years perhaps, but not forever. And if we put it off long enough, maybe we won’t have to pay for it; maybe that task will fall to our children or grandchildren. What will they think of that? Of us?


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