How the Meaning of Infrastructure Has Changed Over TimeRoundup
tags: infrastructure, political history
Peter A. Shulman is an associate professor of the history of science, technology, and American politics at Case Western Reserve University.
On march 31, president Joe Biden unveiled a $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan that he lauded as “a once-in-a-generation investment.” The package recalled the construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s and the public investments in the space race in the ’60s. However, this program is distinguished from those earlier ones not only by its price tag but in its unprecedented scope. Over the past three months, as Congress has debated Biden’s plan, three key questions have emerged: How should the bill be funded? How much spending should be devoted to new investments versus continuing current spending? And, most fundamentally, what counts as infrastructure in the first place?
No one has objected to including roads or bridges in the package, but what about investing in advanced manufacturing? Mitigating climate change? Home health care? Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell complained that “less than 6 percent of this massive proposal goes to roads and bridges.” Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia derided Biden’s original plan as “a partisan proposal that goes far beyond what constitutes … infrastructure.” Senator Rob Portman of Ohio slammed the bill as one full of “broad policy priorities that are a far cry away from what we’ve ever defined as infrastructure” and that “redefines infrastructure to include hundreds of billions of dollars of spending on priorities like health care, workforce development, and research and development.”
In response, the White House has pointed out that Republicans previously included in their own infrastructure plans the very items they now seek to exclude, and that, in any event, the American economy has changed and the investments needed to make it run have changed as well. Above all, Democrats have tried to define infrastructure on their own terms. “When I’m talking about making sure that you take that asbestos out of schools, that’s infrastructure,” Biden said in April. “When I’m talking about building high-speed rail, that’s infrastructure. When I’m talking about making sure you’re in a situation where we can redo some of the federal buildings that are just absolutely leaking energy every single day, that’s infrastructure.”
More traditional economists have endorsed the narrower definition. Columbia University’s R. Glenn Hubbard rejected as infrastructure any investments that are “not productivity-enhancing.” Similarly, when Harvard’s Edward Glaeser considered even meritorious projects such as affordable housing and home health services for the elderly and disabled, his response was simply, “It does a bit of violence to the English language, doesn’t it?”
Tracing the history of the term infrastructure tells a more complicated story.
In the summer of 1951, representatives of the NATO alliance, founded just two years earlier, were fighting over how to turn the idea of “containment” into an operational plan for protecting Western Europe from the threat of Soviet invasion. What resources were needed to support Allied armies? What would they cost? Who would pay?
Amid these negotiations, American journalists began noticing an obscure new term circulating among advisers to Dwight Eisenhower, NATO’s supreme commander. From his offices outside Paris at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), Eisenhower and his staff discussed plans for infrastructure, a word they had lifted from their French counterparts that one journalist explained meant “supporting air bases, lines of communication, supply depots and other facilities an army needs to live and fight.”
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