February 10, 2009

Investing in Infrastructure is a Matter of National Security

Electric power transmissionImage via Wikipedia
Now that Republicans have decided not to support President Obama's economic stimulus plan, I sincerely hope he will dump the corporate tax breaks and beef up infrastructure spending considerably. It is increasingly difficult for me to imagine how anyone can oppose infrastructure spending, especially in an economic climate where job creation seems to be so important. I think that part of the problem is the failure by those promoting infrastructure spending to frame it as an issue of national security. Then again, it might be easier to pass infrastructure spending bills if fewer people seemed so eager to use catastrophic failures of infrastructure to find "miracles."

The condition our infrastructure in the U.S. is terrible. Few would deny this, so the debate centers on the price tag. And yes, restoring our infrastructure will be expensive. Still, we must remember that the cost is as high as it is because of decades of neglect.

When one considers that millions in Kentucky were without power following the sort of winter storm that happens with some regularity, one starts to perceive the national security implications. Suppose terrorists, foreign or domestic, were to take out a key power grid. Residents would be without electricity (which often means heat and/or air conditioning as well as communication) and safe drinking water. Understaffed and poorly equipped power companies would do the best they could to restore services, but a clever enough attack could prolong their efforts considerably.

My power goes out at least weekly. The reported culprit is almost always wind, and this is not known as a particularly windy part of the country. It never stays off for more than a couple hours, but I am consistently amazed that we still rely on above-ground power lines. I'm no engineer, but I assume the barrier to widespread adoption of weather-resistant solutions is primarily one of cost. But if a little wind can knock out power for several hours, how vulnerable are we to someone wanting to harm us?

Part of any good defense strategy involves target hardening. It seems to be that making dramatic improvements to our infrastructure would be an excellent example of such a strategy. Best of all, spending on infrastructure would create new jobs and provide a substantial boost to the economy. Unfortunately, it seems that widespread recognition of these facts just might require a "miracle."