We know what infrastructure we need.
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.