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  • Writer's pictureKayoumars Bakhtar

The History of Civilization is the History of Infrastructure

Time for America’s Overdue Infrastructure Renaissance

“According to the system of natural liberty, the sovereign has only three duties to attend to; three duties of great importance, indeed, but plain and intelligible to common understandings: first, the duty of protecting the society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies; secondly, the duty of protecting, as far as possible, every member of the society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it, or the duty of establishing an exact administration of justice; and thirdly, the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions, which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain; because the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society.”

In his brilliant masterpiece “A Vision of American Strength: How Transportation Infrastructure Built the United States” the celebrated journalist James P. Pinkerton observes:

The history of civilization is the history of infrastructure. It’s fair to say that before there were paths of some kind, there was no real civilization—that is, no civilization in the sense of a settled, permanent place where food could be stored, buildings could be clustered, defenses could be built, religious structures could be made accessible, official documents could be preserved, capital could be accumulated, artisanal production could be cultivated, and art could be created and displayed.

Pinkerton’s comprehensive account of America’s infrastructure evolution by the visionary leaders of the nation from pre-revolution to Obama, has urged me to devote this discussion to his inspirational message about the overdue Renaissance in America’s Infrastructure. At the outset, Pinkerton declares what appears to be the corner stone of his thought process:

The key variable is vision—the ability to see clearly a future in which Americans make real things, consume real things, transport real things, and export real things. In other words, what’s needed is the fuller realization of the basic economic imperatives of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. As for the more recent Information Age, it should be seen as a further layering on top of earlier technological advances—because humans are corporeal beings, and they need to be able to go places and move things. Ones and zeroes do not supersede the need for mileage and tonnage.

Pinkerton refers to the English historian Arnold Toynbee’s praise of the ancient civilizations’ means and methods to achieve flood control and irrigation management:

The wantonness of Nature was subdued by the works of Man; the formless swamp made way for a pattern of ditches and embankments and fields; the Lands of Egypt and Shinar [Sumeria] were reclaimed from the wilderness; the Egyptiac and Sumeric civilizations were created.

“Toynbee’s overall idea”, writes Pinkerton “is that history has been a matter of ‘challenge and response.’ That is, when a people were confronted with a challenge—from harnessing natural phenomena to defending against predatory warfare—the basic question was: Could they manage an adequate response?”

“Just as ancient civilizations fell when they could no longer respond to challenges”, says Pinkerton, “so Americans should be mindful that wealth and status in the world are never guaranteed. In our time, America must once again prove itself an economic and strategic power in a world of ever - intensified competition - or else face the sad fate of many past civilizations.”

Pinkerton sums up the “history of American Strength” in 10 points, including the following:

  • Infrastructure is vision. It is a vision of modernity, progress, and, yes, economic growth. The guiding vision is not one of mere dollars and cents, but rather of national expansion, national experimentation, national unity, and national progress.

  • The American story is a remarkable story, and it can be told through some of its key builders. The great builders of the United States - Washington, Hamilton, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, and Eisenhower - all started from their vision of a stronger, greater America.

  • Infrastructure and superstructure are co - dependent. That is, the economic superstructure of the economy—everything from manufacturing to services, from human capital to software - rests on infrastructure.

  • The story of American Strength is the story of networks. Indeed, upon reflection, we can see that networks and infrastructure are the same thing. Networks convey different things: goods, electricity, and information. The issue is conveyance; things need to move. Without movement, even the digital economy would grind to halt. In other words, a network is infrastructure, and infrastructure is a network.

  • When a nation keeps infrastructure front and center, that commitment generates manufacturing and construction jobs for middle - class Americans. It’s no coincidence that our retreat from large - scale public - works projects since the 1970s has occurred simultaneously with the stagnation of median wages and the waning of Middle America.

  • Infrastructure is the antidote to America’s political woes. As we all know, for more than 20 years, this country has suffered electoral and political gridlock. We have had divided government, in which bitter partisanship undercuts the common good. Yet infrastructure, for which there is more common ground than any other domestic or foreign policy issue, is a game - changer. The sooner that leaders recognize the promise of infrastructure and recover the triumphant legacy of our past, the sooner we can restore American Strength.

Pinkerton maintains that the visionary American leaders believed in this concept before the Revolution, as English subjects, and after independence as Americans. George Washington spent much of his early life surveying the colonial frontier, looking for routes to the West. Later, as an officer in the Virginia militia, he was tasked with the construction of military roads. As an entrepreneur, Washington formed the Patowmack Company, to find a way to make the Potomac River a navigable waterway westward and introducing the charging of tolls.

He believes that the most important figure in President Washington’s Cabinet was Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury.

In the late 1780s, while the U.S. Constitution still waited to be ratified, a series of 85 essays called The Federalist Papers were written by Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, aimed at persuading Americans toward ratification. As one of the authors of these highly influential Papers, he argued for America to achieve its destiny as a strong country with a strong central government and helped push the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

“Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution, ratified on March 4, 1789”, writes Pinkerton, “is replete with Hamiltonian’s enumerated powers assigned to the central government: ‘To regulate commerce’, ‘To fix the standards of weights and measures’, and ‘To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries’.”

The intercourse throughout the Union will be facilitated by new improvements. Roads will everywhere be shortened and kept in better order; accommodations for travelers will be multiplied and meliorated; an interior navigation on our eastern side will be opened throughout, or nearly throughout, the whole extent of the thirteen States. The communication between the Western and Atlantic districts, and between different parts of each, will be rendered more and more easy by those numerous canals with which the beneficence of nature has intersected our country, and which art finds it so little difficult to connect and complete.

Pinkerton reminds the reader of Asa Whitney, a railroad champion during the 1830s and 40s who wrote: “Hamiltonian vision of nation building from east to west required a railroad that would span the continent. A transcontinental rail system would “revolutionize the entire commerce of the world, putting America at the center of all.”

Hamilton was influenced in part by Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” as he wrote his famous “Report on Manufactures” in 1791. “Good roads, canals, and navigable rivers” he wrote, “by diminishing the expense of carriage, put the remote parts of a country more nearly upon a level with those in the neighborhood of the town. They are, upon that account, the greatest of all improvements.” Hamilton soon became instrumental in regulating commerce and establishing “Post Offices and post Roads” in the U.S. Constitution”.

In “Federalist Paper #42,” published in January 1788, America’s the future president James Madison emphasized the specific national responsibility to “establish post offices and post roads,” writing: “The power of establishing post roads, must, in every view, be a harmless power; and may, perhaps, by judicious management, become productive of great public conveniency. Nothing, which tends to facilitate the intercourse between the states, can be deemed unworthy of the public care.”

As the Secretary of State in Washington’s Administration, Thomas Jefferson did not see eye-to-eye with Alexander Hamilton. As the third U.S. President however, Jefferson had the vision to double the size of the United States. Subsequent presidents”, says Pinkerton, “would have to show the vision needed to keep the nation both intact and sovereign, even as they yet further expanded the country’s size.”

By the time of his eighth Annual Message to Congress in 1808, Jefferson had come around to seeing the value of Hamilton’s nation-building program as a national defense mechanism, and a means of guaranteeing American Strength. In the same address to Congress, he talked about the importance of “internal improvements”. If the U.S. wanted to expand its industrial might, it had no choice other than to expand its infrastructure. He said: “The situation into which we have thus been forced, has impelled us to apply a portion of our industry and capital to internal manufactures and improvements. The extent of this conversion is daily increasing, and little doubt remains that the establishments formed and forming will under the auspices of cheaper materials and subsistence, the freedom of labor from taxation with us, and of protecting duties and prohibitions - become permanent.” In the words of Pinkerton:

The first U.S. railroad—the “locomotive” was a horse - was built outside of Philadelphia in 1810. And once steam power arrived, the idea took off; more than 9,000 miles of track would be laid across the growing republic by 1850. We might note that these miles of track increased by more than 14 - fold in the 40 years that followed. Indeed, whole new industries were made possible and prosperous because of those rails, confirming the truism that applied technology, plus mass production, equals prosperity, as well as strength.

Pinkerton recalls that the Republican Party at its first national convention in Philadelphia in 1856, drafted a platform that strongly opposed, on constitutional grounds, the extension of slavery into the territories. The platform also supported federal leadership on another key issue: the economic importance of “Internal improvements”, which included the building of a railroad across the nation. It also called for an “emigrant road,” to be built alongside the railroad, for use by pioneers. Although the Republicans lost the 1856 presidential election their platform of 1860, which helped elect Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, echoed the 1865 message:

“Although Abraham Lincoln did not live to see the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869”, Pinkerton writes”, he (Lincoln), “considered infrastructure projects among his most important legislative achievements.” In 2013, Rich Lowry, the author of “Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Rail-splitter Saved the American Dream—and How We Can Do It Again,” noted:

Wherever canals and railroads touched, they brought the competitive pressure of the market with them; the tariff was a support to the growth of industry; the banks produced a reliable paper currency necessary for a cash economy. They all tended to create a vibrant, diverse economy open to men of various talents. Here is where Lincoln is guilty as charged: The agrarians are right that he sought to end the simpler, agricultural America in favor of a modern commercial and industrial economy.

Not all the United States leaders, were blessed with the vision of American Infrastructure similar those of Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson and Lincoln. The following are excerpts from Pinkerton’s book about those visionary presidents.

Shortly after becoming president, Teddy Roosevelt talked about the importance of the Panama Canal in a speech to Congress. “No single great material work which remains to be undertaken on this continent,” Roosevelt said, “is as of such consequence to the American people.” Roosevelt quickly reached an agreement in 1902 for the U.S. to take over control of the canal’s construction from the French. At the time, it was the most expensive and complex public works project in American history.

In 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the legislation creating Works Progress Administration, an agency that would spend $13.4 billion over the next eight years, constructing a wide range of infrastructure projects and creating eight million jobs.

President Harry Truman, who joined the American Road Builders Association in 1936, signed the “Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1952,” the first piece of federal legislation that specifically authorized funds—$25 million—for the construction of the interstates. By using a “50-50” matching formula, the federal government would pay half the cost, and the states the other.

In June 1956: President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the law authorizing construction of the Interstate Highway System and the creation of the Highway Trust Fund to finance it. Eisenhower explained: “Together, the united forces of our communication and transportation system are dynamic elements in the very name we bear—United States. Without them, we would be a mere alliance of many separate parts.”

Ronald Reagan was the last U.S. president to sign legislation increasing the federal gasoline tax for the sole purpose of financing new transportation improvements. In a 1982 radio address to the nation, Reagan said: “The time has come to preserve what past Americans spent so much time and effort to create, and that means a nationwide conservation effort in the best sense of the word. America can’t afford throwaway roads or disposable transit systems. The bridges and highways we fail to repair today will have to be rebuilt tomorrow at many times the cost.”

Pinkerton quotes from French political economist Frédéric Bastiat who observed in his 1850 essay, “That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Unseen,” it’s easy for the “seen”—that is, what’s right in front of us—to be more regarded more seriously than the “unseen”—that is, what’s over the horizon, or in the future.

All feedbacks and comments on the topic of Infrastructure Vision will be genuinely appreciated.

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