A few days ago, Talking Points Memo ran a story about Republicans’ assault on Biden’s infrastructure bill. That bill is extremely popular, even with the GOP base, so the party’s determination to oppose it had to be something other than “hell no, don’t fill those chuckholes or reinforce the electrical grid…”
According to the story, they’ve chosen to defend their opposition by arguing that the bill improperly defines the term “infrastructure.”
“You look at this bill, the $2 trillion in the bill that, only about 5 to 7 percent of it is actual roads and bridges and ports and things that you and I would say is real infrastructure and that we tried to get passed under the last administration with President Trump,” former Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought said recently on Fox News radio.
That statistic is particularly misleading, as it doesn’t count even things like rail and water systems — improvements that fall into the traditional infrastructure bucket.
Republicans charge that expenditures for broadband and green energy, among other provisions of the bill, aren’t infrastructure.
That argument prompted me to look at some of the academic literature. It turns out that there aren’t many publications dealing with the definition of infrastructure, although there’s more than I ever imagined on the economics involved–the returns on investment, the pros and cons of “public-private partnerships,” and various aspects of construction. But there was some, and it was enlightening.
For example, a number of scholars use the term “social overhead capital.” It evidently grew out of Samuelson’s theory of public goods; Samuelson understood infrastructure to be investments by the state that are a precondition for the successful development of the private sector– the basic services without which primary, secondary and tertiary types of production activities cannot function.
In other words, infrastructure is a support system, a floor built by government, that allows businesses and individuals to be productive. That certainly includes roads, bridges, and other elements of our transportation requirements. It also includes technology we need in order to communicate–hence broadband–and the need to keep the lights on–hence the electrical grid. It rather obviously includes water and sewers.
But these days, what constitutes that supportive floor has also come to include social infrastructure–services as well as brick and mortar assets. Social infrastructure includes educational institutions, libraries, parks…It definitely includes police and fire protection, courts of law, garbage collection and other municipal services. In saner countries, it includes healthcare and a menu of social services.
Effective government is a mechanism through which we provide a network of support that allows individual citizens to prosper. That network of support is Infrastructure and it isn’t something the market can supply. Using government to provide foundational systems and services is simply the process of doing collectively what we cannot do individually.
In that literature I consulted, there was ample evidence that physical infrastructure is required if business and the economy are to thrive, and a substantial amount of emerging evidence that social infrastructure is equally necessary to support and empower individuals and families.
Biden’s American Jobs Plan would invest $400 billion in the caregiving economy; $137 billion in schools, early learning centers, and community colleges; $111 billion in clean drinking water; and $621 billion in various transportation projects. All of those investments are part of a supportive network that will pay dividends by enabling more Americans to live productive lives.
That supportive network is certainly infrastructure.