Democrats To The Sewers!!

I’ve argued for a long time that one issue that the Democratic party ought to jump onto with both feet is that of leading the charge to fix and improve the infrastructure in our cities, states, and nation.

Joel Kotkin called it “sewer socialism” and sign me up as one, because if there is a critical role for government to play, it’s here.

The levee failure in New Orleans points out both the cost of not maintaining our infrastructure…the levees failed because they were badly designed, built, maintained, and monitored – and also the problems inherent in building and managing infrastructure in a warren of Federal agencies, state government, and local bodies. At every level, attention is seldom paid – I mean what politician wants to dig into the details on things like sewer construction or road rights-of-way?

And it points out the pervasive haze of corruption, in which things like sewer construction and road rights of way are not driven by engineering needs, but instead become a part of the pork platter in which political connections matter more than competence.

Vaclav Smil has a column on infrastructure up at TechCentral Station; in it he estimates that catching up on infrastructure will cost the Pentagon’s budget for five years.
He cites a new report by the American Society of Civil Engineers:

The complete report makes for an extremely depressing reading as the only bright spot (increased waste recycling has cut the total volume of solid waste and waste-to-energy plants now consume nearly 20% of all garbage) is overwhelmed by a litany of degradations, failures, risks, backlogs, shortfalls and warnings. Just half a dozen bullets convey the overwhelming nature of the report’s findings:

* by the year 2000 27% of all bridges were structurally deficient or functionally obsolete

* investment in roads and bridges would have to increase by 94% in order to reach the projected cost of maintaining and improving the current level

* many sewer systems (some a century old) and water treatment facilities are well past their designed lifespan and while there is a shortfall of $ 12 billion a year to pay for their renewal, federal funding has remained flat for a decade

* total number of unsafe dams has increased by 23% since 2001, to nearly 2,600

* most states have just a decade’s worth of remaining landfill capacity

* half of all navigation locks work beyond their 50-year design span, inland navigation increased by more than 30% since 1980 but construction funding dropped by some 60%

Government keeps grossly underestimating the resources needed to stop a further slide. For example, the FAA put the cost of airport development and reconstruction at $ 6.5 billion a year but the American Association of Airport Executives sees the need for at least $12 billion a year during the next five years. Expectedly, the overall bill to fix these ubiquitous inadequacies and near-failures would be staggering. In 2001 ASCE put the cost of needed infrastructural renewal at $1.3 trillion over a five-year period; this year it raised the estimate by nearly 25% to $1.6 trillion. But the real cost is certainly much higher: ASCE total is just an aggregate expert estimate and a detailed inventory of needs would undoubtedly uncover more inadequacies and failures and, as with any large-scale projects of this kind, cost overruns on the order of 10-20% would be considered a success once the repairs were underway. Consequently, a more realistic total may be now at least $2-2.5 trillion and rising.

OK, fellow Democrats – want to take a stand on an important issue that will improve our lives, save energy and water, and create domestic jobs?

Let’s figure out how to get this done, and how to get it done without just tossing billion-dollar checks into the floodwaters of the Mississippi.

32 thoughts on “Democrats To The Sewers!!”

  1. There is a meme going around amongst liberals right now that Americans should be ‘making more sacrifices’. Now, I happen to agree with the basic sentiment of ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’. But very quickly after hearing the discongrous call of some ivory tower intellectual who lives comfortably on public funds declaring that its time for American s to make sacrifices, it becomes clear that what is being pushed is the same old agenda. Notably, the speaker wants to bring back the draft, because he’s hoping for a repeat of the Vietnam War, and the speaker wants higher taxes because he supports this or that expansion of government.

    Now, I don’t want to say too much about someone literally hoping for a repeat of the Vietnam War, because I would hope that such a sentiment would speak for itself and because its not really important to this topic. But, on the theme of higher taxes, I want to say that the progressives who lambast me for supporting tax cuts have it all wrong. It’s not that I mind paying taxes. I don’t. I pay them cheerfully every year. (No, really I do.) Paying taxes is part of my duty as an American citizen. I don’t mind. I’m more than willing to make sacrifices for the well being of my country since I feel that I am so fortunate to live within such a great nation. No, my rejection of higher taxes has nothing to do with my wanting to live high on the hog, because God knows I don’t. It has nothing to do with not wanting to sacrifice.

    So, the liberals spreading such memes should not be surprised when thier pleas don’t move me in the slightest. They are based on false premises.

    The real reason that I don’t support raising taxes is that government has proved time and time again that they are poor stewards of the money. The Federal Budget keeps inflating, and I have no idea where all the money is going, but I sure as heck no that it is not going to the things which are important. The important things that a government can do that I support like civil infrastructure, basic research, and yes even the military are always chronically underfunded. Yet, the government always manages to spend more money than it has on something. And for some reason I’ll never fathom, rather than complaining that the fundamental things that a government should do it doesn’t, the public is seemingly clamoring for more entitlements – which would make since only if there was some surplus to be spent and all the basic services were already adequately funded.

    For my part, it seems to me that if the government spent more money on ‘sewer socialism’ that the money that the government spends would first go into the pocket of the same sort of laborer that would otherwise be getting entitlement checks, but at the end of the process rather than having a poor laborer still needing dole and nothing to show for it, you’d have an experienced construction worker and a capital good of some sort in the form of a road, levy, canal, or some other useful thing.

    Reform the budget to put things which should be first priorities as first priorities, and then if it works out I’ll be more than willing to discuss spending more of my money on government services. Put I’m not going to spend more money buying a defective product.

  2. AL,

    1) I’m not sure this “creates jobs” given that tax money to do is comes at the expense of the private sector

    2) I’m not sold on the idea that airports should be federally subsidized; it seems to me a free market, or at worst, local government subsidies, would do the trick.

    3) So, um, what was the point of that huge highway bill? If it’s not fixing these serious problems, then what, exactly, is it doing?

  3. Oh, c’mon, this is easy. Simply, as so many liberals wish the US would on so many subjects, move to a more European way of doing things. Perhaps the French way, where water and sewage services have always been provided by private, profit making companies. Or the UK, where we privatised them two decades ago and quality and investment have been going up, pollution and waste down and prices (until very recently) static. Simply sell them.

  4. I wholeheartedly agree, but I also think there isn’t a chance in hell of it actually happening, at least until a few more drastic infrastructure failures have already occurred.

    The reason is that there’s almost no political incentive for long-term, preventative thinking. Nobody gets rewarded for preventing a problem – the absence of the problem is simply never noted.

    Instead, the people in place at the time get punished (politically) when a failure occurs. But especially in the era of ballooning deficits and the Norquist Tax Cut Jihad(tm), no politician can survive a push for a massive upgrade of our infrastructure. Until it’s 100% clear there’s a problem (i.e. after the expensive failure occurs), nothing can or will happen.

    It’s the same political culture that gives us a health care system that discourages inexpensive preventative care, leading uninsured people to burden the system with expensive emergency cases that could have been prevented.

    Investing a few bucks in prevention – whether in infrastructure or health care – reaps massive returns in prevented emergencies (An extra million a year for a decade on those levees would have saved how much? 100 billion or so of reconstruction? That’s a pretty damn good ROI). But the political rhetoric in this country always punishes the short term expenditure. Even pork barrel spending only works for visible, shiny-new structures that guarantee votes, not rebuilding our corroding, buried water pipe system.

  5. IdahoEv is dead on accurate.

    I find it kind of sad that the argument presented is that the gov’t bureaucracy has failed (eg. the levees in NO) so we should spend MORE money on the gov’t bureaucracy.

    A think a more rational thing to do would be to defund the gov’t bureaucracy that was responsible for the levees — all of them. Then a new organization can be formed. The new org can decide to hire (or not) whichever workers it deems necessary.

    I already hear the objections: Can’t do that! Civil Service Tenure! Not politically possible!, etc etc. I have heard that before. These “reasons” are only self imposed restrictions, not rules of nature.

    Hey, we fired Mike Brown at Fema, we could fire some local officials as well.

  6. uhm, weren’t the democrats in charge of NO ? how good a job did they do there regarding infrastructure ? any examples anywhere of any democrat demonstrating competence ? they all talk a good game but don’t seem so hot on translating the talk into actions. excellent at making excuses though.

  7. I’m not sure this “creates jobs” given that tax money to do is comes at the expense of the private sector

    That’s the problem with the idea that “government spending creates jobs” – the things that the money is spent on is visible but the crowding out effect is not.

    I’m not sold on the idea that airports should be federally subsidized; it seems to me a free market, or at worst, local government subsidies, would do the trick.

    Why limit it just to airpors? It seems to me that most if not all infrastructure projects are a local and State issue (even if they could have interstate consequences) and that the people who live closest to it, derive the greatest benefit and thereby have the greatest incentive to fund those projects which are most necessary, particularly if they’re spending their one money rather than getting people from another State to subsidize it.

    So, um, what was the point of that huge highway bill? If it’s not fixing these serious problems, then what, exactly, is it doing?

    I think that the reason we have highway bills at the federal level is because it gives members of the House and Senate the chance to tell the folks back home how they “brought back” money for a local project. The problem of course being that the money they “brought back” originally came from the same local level – it was merely sent out to Washington where politicians voted on how to reallocate it. Fundamentally such a system is inefficient because (a) it adds another level of bureaucracy and (b) creates an incentive to fund less meritorious projects by shifting part of the cost to people from other States.

  8. bq. _”It’s the same political culture that gives us a health care system that discourages inexpensive preventative care, leading uninsured people to burden the system with expensive emergency cases that could have been prevented.”_

    Let me see if I understand this correctly. Let’s provide inexpensive preventative care for uninsured people so that hopefully they will remain well enough long enough to become insured and self sufficient? In the mean time let’s continue to raise taxes and take their hard earned money to make it harder for them to accomplish self sufficiency.

    bq. _”OK, fellow Democrats – want to take a stand on an important issue that will improve our lives, save energy and water, and create domestic jobs?”_

    Create domestic jobs for who? More government employees? Business whose only interest is the government contract without regard for workmanship or quality?

    What we have here with the Federal government and spending is the same issues we had with car manufactures in 70’s. Poor product control, quality and shoddy workmanship. Then when they got pounded by the imports that actually worked, got better gas mileage and took a beating they screamed foul? Wonder why the slogan Ford Quality is Job 1? They had to win the hearts and minds of the consumer all over again.

    I’d like to here something on the lines of Federal Government Quality is Job 1 and it’s going to take a lot to convince me that they are living up to that slogan.

  9. Thorley, there are two reasons I’d be concerned about “privatizing” or “localizing” the interstate highway system.

    1) I live in Charlottesville, VA, but I like to buy products manufactured in my hometown of Seattle. If Kansas decides to neglect its infrastructure, prices on those productes (and indeed on any product manufactured or brought through ports on the west coast) will rise as trucks crowd routes through South Dakota.

    Multiply that out and you have a situation where one state or locality can heavily burden nationwide trade. On the flip side, there is little direct benefit to Kansas in having large amounts of truck traffic passing through instead of routing around (although tolls and business at truck stops may help). Perhaps the current system is economically less efficient than the race to the bottom, but I’m not willing to just assume it.

    I’m perfectly happy to grant that federal funding for the I-90 span over Lake Washington (the last mile or so of that highway which connects the Seattle isthmus to Boston) is dumb given that the truck traffic from the Port of Seattle is a rounding error compared to local commuters. But at the very least it isn’t a bridge to nowhere.

    3) I pick airports because they are geograpically compact and thus theoretically one can imagine a private corporation building and operating one at a profit; a nationwide network shoud be possible without any federal involvement in the construction phase. A nationwide highway system (or indeed practically any road other than a bridge that covers any distance worth driving) would be much tougher for private investors to pull off.

  10. Kind of a funny post to me. The democrats here wish to create the city as an island. Absolutly no urban sprawl period. Strike down highway funding, bridge repair and anything that may enable economic growth in the suburbs or heaven forbid the exurbs. Strike down any bridge repair or expansion to Wisconsin because as a Minneapolis Star-Tribune editorial states, “the four lane span would encourage the exporting to Wisconsin of people, tax base, jobs, and economic growth that should be kept in Minnesota.” “”:
    Democrats say sewers yes, buses yes, lightrail yes, buildings yes, turn the old warehouses into $500,000 lofts yes…if you are within the urban metro area.

    Outstate areas… Leave no footprint.

  11. The problem is, every year there is a pork ridden bonanza of quadrillions of dollars ladled out via transportation bills. Personally i dont think your average American looks around and just wishes we could slop more tax money down that endless hole. I dont feel like my highways and bridges are falling apart- to the contrary I cant find a highway not being torn up and put back together. Add that to the new Golden Gate Bridge being built to no-where in Alaska and the whole notion becomes a parody. If Dems really think there is a built up angst in the mainstream that the Republicans just arent spending enough… well actually it seems like something they would think.

    Now if there were a shred of boldness and willingness to break with the interests groups, the Democrats would run on an energy policy promoting building nuclear plants and more (and cleaner) refineries. That would provide all the same jobs/growth but in a direction that the country actually is in crisis over. Needless to say, fat chance.

  12. If infrastructure spending on this scale is really required, it would surely put a big dent in the “global savings glut” which some economists (including Ben Bernanke) believe now exists.

    But is ASCE really a credible and neutral source on this matter? Civil engineers, after all, make money when infrastructure is built. Isn’t this kind of like asking the dog how he feels about you having steak (with a nice bone) for dinner?

  13. A philosophy of “improvements” would be Lincoln-era Republicanism.

    But how can one make Sewers an attractive campaign theme when, say, the Governor of Illinois is about to offer health insurance to *every* child in the State. I suspect the drift of the Democratic party will be to cut down on public improvements to pay for bigger and better health care initiatives.

    BTW Illinois will not pay for its health insurance program; it wants to run the State into the ground so that Arnold will come be Governor some day. Brother can you spare a Hollywood actor?

  14. AL-

    After reading this, I have sort of a meta-question: what’s the point of a post like this?

    Realistically, who do you think you’re persuading, or even reaching?

    The vast, vast majority of the posters (and, I assume, the readers) left on WoC are relatively dedicated Republicans and/or libertarians. As the comments above attest to, for better or for worse they’re surely not interested in giving the government _more_ money to spend, even on things like basic infrastructure, simply because most of them don’t trust government (and particularly Democratic government) in the first place. Talking about this here just gives them more reason to despise and snipe at the Democrats. (Which, obviously, they’re more than entitled to do.)

    Meanwhile, I’d be surprised if one in a hundred readers of this post considered themselves Democrats in good standing. And rather than hammering home Bush’s increasingly apparent mismanagement over the next few election cycles, you’re saying we should make _sewers_ a major plank of the platform? I’m not saying basic infrastructure’s not important, and that good stewardship isn’t or shouldn’t be a key part of the Democratic message, but don’t you think a lot of that’s implied in the “We’re not the party of massive deficits and crony appointees” message?

    Do you honestly believe that this is the best way forward for the party, and that this forum’s the best place to discuss it? And if so, for goodness’ sake, *WHY?*

  15. #13)If Dems really think there is a built up angst in the mainstream that the Republicans just arent spending enough… well actually it seems like something they would think.

    It’s not that they’re not spending enough, it’s that we’re spending badly. The ‘bridge to nowhere’ is a prime example, and the problem is that senators don’t even have to defend their pork anymore. The second bridge they even want to name ‘Don Young’s Way’ in honor of its patron, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska).

    WTF! controling a board to bring pork into your own state should be illegal. Judges have to take leave from a court case they’re involved in, why not public officials? Instead, senior members of committes load their states down with pork, even though they don’t need it.. This is why goverment spending is so bad: are senior leaders don’t care because they’re getting a cut, either directly or by increasing their popularity.

    And this is why the bridge withstood a pollitical move against it… because every other Senator/Congressman in washington has his own ‘bridge’ to defend, and doesn’t want his pork to be next on the chopping block.

    We need to fund new public projects, engineer new technologies, increase the ability and technology in schools, fix the transportation system, fix the belabored energy sytem, and increase the funding and preparedness of our first defenders Police, Fire, and medical centers.

    But until we clean up congress and the senate to forbid pork projects, we’re just going to keep throwing money down the sink.

  16. We need to fund new public projects, engineer new technologies, increase the ability and technology in schools, fix the transportation system, fix the belabored energy sytem, and increase the funding and preparedness of our first defenders Police, Fire, and medical centers.
    But until we clean up congress and the senate to forbid pork projects, we’re just going to keep throwing money down the sink.

    Or why not just cut out the middle man (Washington) and keep the money at the State and local level so that the people who use, pay for it? Seems to me that so long as “someone else” is going to foot the bill, legislators will always have an incentive to fund pork that’s popular at home but wouldn’t be so popular if the people benefiting were the one’s paying for it.

  17. AL, two words / one project:

    Big Dig.

    I wanted budget surpluses to go to infrastructure rebuilding back in the Clinton era.

    Instead we got the corrupt, incompetant Boston mess.

  18. All sewers are local. Let the locals pay for them.

    Who better to watch the spending than the people directly doing the spending?

    Keep expenditures as local as possible.

    To keep the government honest we need to get them to put more doc on the www.

    Transparency gives more honesty.

    BTW the bridges figure is misleading. Bridges that induce congestion or that cannot carry trucks above a certain weight limit (inadequate) do not necessarily need to be replaced pronto.

    I agree that to gain the connectivity advantage states like Illinois might have to subsidize Interstates in Idaho. However, if a non-interstate bridge in Idaho needs replacing the folks in Idaho should handle it.

    So other than interstate roads and waterways what was it you had in mind?

    BTW would extending boradband to more folks be better for us than spending on “infrastructure”? If the government sucks up the $$$ the consumer will not get the choice.

  19. Electrical utilities are perfectly capable of maintaing the electrical grid.

    The oil companies are doing a good job of distributing liquid fuels.

    I don’t see a problem except in granting rights of way. Which is a local issue mostly.

    What is most needed on the grid these days is storage.

    I have some ideas about storage if any one has access to capital.

  20. Nuke plants are a good idea if they are willing to give up government catastrophic insurance.

    Wind is coming down the cost curve nicely. I’d bet on it before I put more money into nukes.

    BTW I’m an ex-Naval Nuke so I think my biases on nuke plants vs wind are not too unbalanced.

    If folks feel we need a nuclear sector of a certain size to support our Navy I propose more nuclear powered naval ships as opposed to more civilian reactors.

  21. Gotta love you libertarians….you’re a hoot! The answerr to every problem is “Feds out, local gov’t in” or some variation on this.

    What about poor or rural communities that can’t afford to pay for their own infrastructure upgrades? Tough luck for them?

    Also, ever hear of “interstate highways”…

    Bridges that cross rivers separating states…

    Runways on national and international airports…

    Electric grids that span entire swaths of the country…

    Watersheds that supply clean water from one area to another…

    Even sewage sometiimes has to cross some boundary sometimes, for example on its way to a central processing facility. Should it just be dumped at the border?

    We’re all one big happy American family. I’m more than glad if a large chunk of my tax money goes to help other Americans live better lives, if that is what is needed to make us strong and great.

    The Libertarian Model has more holes than a Saddam Hussein target at a gun club.

    But it sure makes for some easy to digest slogans, for those with a delicate “constitution”, I guess.

  22. Stiggy,
    Oddly, your “list” seems to be pure slogans. The “rural” communities are so poor that we have a multi-million dollar bridge being built in Alaska using Federal funds to serve 58 people who currently use a ferry to commute off their island.

  23. The crazy thing about the “must build infrastructure” meme, is that it is the people themselves who decide what they will tolerate as far as degraded infrastructure. Misery triggers action. Nothing less than misery will motivate for some things. Factor in the variability for the “misery factor” for different populations, and you just might start to understand the issue. Right now you don’t.

    Democrats only think in slogans. It saves time and energy. Republicans and libertarians are just barely better. Just enough to win most of the time.

  24. Sorry to have been gone from the thread a bit – some annoying personal news (see the “post”: above) kept me away from the blog for a bit.

    Let me hit the top three points made in the comments, if I may:

    1) Why here given the audience? Because as much as I appreciate the folks who read this (hi folks!), I blog here as away of working out issues that are significant to me – I’m trying to figure out my own stand on things, and craft what I believe will be the ‘right’ positions for me to take.

    2) Local governments can do it better. Sometimes, and for some things. Corruption at a local level is far more pervasive and easy than corruption at the Federal level- but note that I didn’t say that the issue was Federalizing the infrastucture of the country, just that a key element of the Democratic position needed to be that something had to be done.

    3) Yes, peole will eventuallty start complaining about infrastructure issues – when sewage backs up into their houses. But to fix the problems can take decades, and government is supposed to be planning far enough ahead that we oughtn’t to have to wade through sewage in our living rooms for ten years while we wait for repairs.

    More later…


  25. Chris (#16)

    Well, standing for sewers is at least standing for _something_. When Ronald Reagan won in 1980 it was only partly because of the disastrous results of 20 years of liberal policies (by both parties). He also had an alternative vision. Now, you can certainly disagree with that vision, but you can’t deny he had one. He didn’t just say “elect me ’cause I’m not as big a screw-up as Jimmy Carter.” And the democrats cannot win by saying “elect me ’cause I’m not as big a screw-up as W.” They also have to have some alternative policy vision.

  26. Cato the Elder invented Sewer Socialism about 2200 years ago, when he raised taxes to build the first Roman aqueducts.

    Cato was also a social conservative, and more hawkish (“Cartago Delenda Est!”) than ten thousand Paul Wolfowitzes.

    So there’s all kinds of good ideas in there for enterprising Democrats. It will make a nice change from recycling Gunnar Myrdal bulls–t.

  27. Fred-

    Is there really any point to me talking this out with you? You imply Democrats don’t currently stand for anything, I rather strongly disagree. I doubt either one of us will be able to convince the other that they’re wrong.

    Likewise, I suspect that, whatever Reagan stood for in 1980, the reason he got as many votes as he did _was_ because of his “I’m not Jimmy Carter” message. You probably disagree, but, again, I doubt either one of us will be able to budge the other on that point.

    And the very fact that so many people here seem to take the “well, following AL’s advice would move the Democrats from ‘completely intolerable’ to ‘somewhat less intolerable'” perspective is the reason I was questioning AL’s post in the first place… but if he thinks y’all are the best way to gauge the appropriate Democratic positions, it’s his call.

  28. Chris, It’s probably true we’ll never convince each other of our respective positions. But I don’t think talking things out with people who are at least willing to listen is ever really completely wasted. I have to admit it’s hard for me to see what the Democrats currently stand for. You could tell me “social (or economic) justice,” but in the past, that’s been code for the policies of wealth redistribution and racial preferences that failed so spectacularly in the 60s and 70s. The Democratic position on Iraq is the same defeatist position that cost us so much after Viet Nam, which in my view, was the first of a long line of American capitulations that led directly to 9/11. I concede that those positions can be described as “standing for something,” but it’s not standing for anything that could possibly win elections for democrats. And I stated in my previous comment that Reagan’s election partly resulted from the disasters that had accumulated in American politics and economy by 1979. But let’s face it, Carter was not a terribly effective president, but he also had the misfortune of the disasters of twenty years of Democrat policies (again, by both democratic and republican administrations) culminating on his watch. Reagan offered an alternative to those policies. So you tell me: what _do_ the Democrats stand for that hasn’t already been tried unsuccessfully?

  29. Aaaaand…. you’ve just proven my point, Fred, by taking any available opportunity to dump all over the Democrats. You’re clearly _not_ willing to listen, if you start the conversation off with the rhetorical question “is there anything Democrats have ever done that hasn’t completely sucked?”

    As for the rest, I think you have a rather jaundiced view of what constitutes “failure” and “success”, and I’ll leave it at that.

  30. This one is for Robin Roberts- you don’t know what you are talking about! I live in Alaska, but not Ketchikan. Check your facts, as the bridge is being built to serve Ketchikan, not Gravina Island, where the bridge is going to, not from. The only way out of Ketchikan, besides the boat to Bellingham, is the airport, which is on Gravina Island. There are 8,044 residents of Ketchikan. There is no lodging, stores, nor restaurants on Gravina Island, so when the ferry quits for the night, stranded passengers sleep in the terminal and eat vending food. Rainfall in Ketchikan is measured in feet, not inches and the terrain, turbulence and visibility do not always allow for the planes to get in. I am not one of the contractors who will benefit from the construction monies, but I understand what it is like to live in a rugged land. I am a lifelong Alaskan and am tired of our state getting beaten up with half-truths by people who live on an arid pancake!

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