America the Spineless

Last Updated Apr 17, 2008 11:44 PM EDT

America's economic backbone is its infrastructure -- things like our interstate highway system, our airports, the Internet.

Lately, the headlines are full of rickety bridges, traffic jams that suck up billions of work hours, and broadband penetration that barely ranks in the world's top 20. America's infrastructure needs upgrading. In "Backbone," the cover story of newly released, not-yet-online Spring edition of The Wilson Quarterly, we get a brain dump on all facets of the nation's infrastructure, why its decline might kill our economy and what we need to do to prevent that dire outcome.

The historian Bruce Seely dectails a shift in the way infrastructure gets built these days.

"The political and financial environments have become much more difficult to navigate. Numerous reviews, rapidly rising costs, and blizzards of litigation are among the well-known symptoms. And there has been a subtler but very far-reaching change: the decline of respect for expertise," he writes in 'The Secret is the System.'

Seely argues that our modes of transportation need to be planned as a unified whole, rather than in silos of road, rail, air and water. He details how the backlash to the railroad robber barons of the 19th century has hobbled transport policy-making ever since, notes that the U.S. has annually spent less than 2 percent of GDP on infrastructure since the 1980s (China and India spend five to nine percent, though they have a lot more developing to do than we do). Seely points to the controversial idea of the North American Super Corridor, running from Mexico to Canada, as exactly what we need to do more of. "Whether you shop at Wal-Mart or Bloomingdale's, you can thank the new hyperefficient global shipping network for a share of the bargains you see. But if U.S. facilities turn out to be a weak link in global supply chains, business will go elsewhere and the bargains will evaporate."

Despite his gloominess, Seely ends on a hopeful note that the U.S. has always gotten things done when it had to.

Joel Garreau in 'Get Smart' puts that hopefulness on a technology magic carpet and sends us zinging towards a brighter, less expensive future. Garreau thinks that for about $15 billion -- the cost of Boston's Big Dig project -- we could fix a good chunk of the country's infrastructure problems right now. And he calls for public-private partnerships to lead the way.

As we plan our next generation infrastructure, we'll need to think carefully about how we build it, says Alan Weisman in 'Built to Last,' the third of the three articles that make up the Backbone package. But, in a nod to the Ecclesiast, Weisman ruminates on how these works of ours are not destined to last, especially as new technologies supercede our need for things like highways.

These articles aren't yet online, so corporate planners should find a bookstore, get a copy and peruse it carefully.

  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.