We know what in­fra­struc­ture we need.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - out­look@wash­post.com

With fi­nanc­ing pro­pos­als on the ta­ble from the pres­i­dent and the Se­nate mi­nor­ity leader, among oth­ers, it seems we al­ready know how we’d spend that cap­i­tal. Af­ter all, if both par­ties want to drop $1 tril­lion on in­fra­struc­ture, pre­sum­ably they know where it should go.

Yet these pro­pos­als don’t men­tion any par­tic­u­lar projects. So it’s worth ask­ing: What ex­actly would we build if we could mar­shal the po­lit­i­cal will? Un­der­ground high-speed rail? World-class international air­ports? More roads? And where — in the grow­ing ur­ban cen­ters or the de­clin­ing Rust Belt? With all the talk about build­ing some­thing, the only spe­cific “in­fra­struc­ture” pro­posal that gets any national at­ten­tion is a south­ern bor­der wall.

In­fra­struc­ture spend­ing is, more than any­thing, a public pol­icy tool, a way to en­cour­age or en­able cer­tain ways of life and modes of com­merce. How and where will we live in the fu­ture? What kind of en­ergy should we plan to con­sume? Do we ac­cept a hu­man role in cli­mate change, and will we en­cour­age pat­terns of com­merce and life that re­duce that? Should the global trend of ur­ban­iza­tion be en­cour­aged by in­vest­ing in ci­ties or dis­cour­aged by fa­cil­i­tat­ing ex­treme com­mutes and ru­ral life­styles? Is potable public wa­ter a civil right or a costly ser­vice? What kind of jobs do we want for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­cans?

These ques­tions aren’t sim­ple. They re­quire us to bring our judg­ment and val­ues to bear, and un­til they’re an­swered, it’s not clear what in­fra­struc­ture we need. Be­fore any can­di­date or elected of­fi­cial tries to sell you on an in­fra­struc­ture plan, they first need to ex­plain what kind of world they’re try­ing to build and what vi­sion of the fu­ture they want to build it for. Oth­er­wise, it’s just more empty prom­ises.

Joel H. Moser is the founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Aqua­ma­rine In­vest­ment Part­ners, an ad­junct pro­fes­sor at Columbia Univer­sity’s School of International and Public Af­fairs and a mem­ber of the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions.

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