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Of Shipyards and Golf Courses: Infrastructure and Economic Nostalgia

Cross-posted from the Frontier Group.

Politics has an indispensable role to play in infrastructure decision-making. There is and can be no objective definition of a society’s infrastructure “needs” -- rather, they are shaped by economics, culture and the conscious expression of a society’s values and priorities through the political system.

So, at this time of intense political conflict and renewed interest in infrastructure investment, what are people out there saying about those priorities? Let’s start with Trump advisor Steve Bannon:

I'm the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it's the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Ship yards, iron works, get them all jacked up. We're just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution -- conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.

Let's talk about shipyards. The Trump campaign’s emphasis on restoring the industries that fueled the early- to mid-20th century American economy was curious to many, but it did seem to help propel the president-elect to victory in the Rust Belt. Shipbuilding was once an economically vital industry in many cities -- my grandfather, for example, worked in a shipyard near Pittsburgh during World War II. But that was a long time ago. U.S. shipbuilding collapsed beginning in the 1970s and today employs 110,000 people, or roughly one out of every 1,430 Americans. Those jobs are certainly valuable, but getting shipyards “all jacked up” could not possibly happen overnight given the capital investment required, and, even if it did, it would have only a small impact on the overall economy.

Moreover, the U.S. would be reentering the industry at a bad time, as the world currently finds itself in the midst of a glut of ships … a glut that will likely only worsen if “economic nationalists” like Bannon erect new barriers to international trade.

Let’s move on to James B. Stewart, writing in the New York Times to urge that the new president build national unity through a “Trump-Size” infrastructure program. His advice to Mr. Trump:

Build something awe-inspiring. Something Americans can be proud of. Something that will repay the investment many times over for generations to come. Build the modern-day equivalent of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Lincoln Tunnel or the Timberline Lodge. Or even, given Mr. Trump’s passion for the sport, another Bethpage State Park Black Course — the first public golf course to host the prestigious United States Open.

Golf courses are a curious investment to inspire national unity, given that 92.5 percent of Americans[1] don’t pick up a golf club even once in the course of a given year. As with shipbuilding, golf has been a declining industry for years, with participation among 18 to 34-year-olds down by 30 percent over the last two decades.

Like many, I’ve often found myself in awe of New Deal-era infrastructure – the trails, parkways, bridges and buildings that people like my other grandfather (who spent part of the Depression in the Civilian Conservation Corps) built all across the country. But what was uniquely appealing about those projects wasn’t Trumpian grandiosity or even their beauty per se, but the degree to which they married beauty and function in service of a larger goal – connection to the natural world, commerce, public health and safety, and so on.

By now, you may have noticed that I’ve peppered my comments about two infrastructure stories written in late 2016 with anecdotes about my grandfathers – two members of the Greatest Generation who passed away more than 15 years ago. In the Boston Globe, Scott Kirsner described Trump’s victory as the victory of the Nostalgia Economy over the Knowledge Economy. I don’t think that dichotomy is entirely fair or even all that useful – Nostalgia Economy jobs are still jobs that pay and provide meaning to workers and their communities. But the basic point – that America, a nation that has been resolutely future-oriented throughout its history, now risks turning decisively back toward the past – is one that cannot be lost or ignored.

If economic or cultural nostalgia – including, I would argue, a doubling-down on automobile-age transportation infrastructure that has long since ceased to provide compelling return on investment – comes to define America’s infrastructure strategy in the 21st century, we are almost certain to look back at this moment decades from now and rue the opportunity and precious dollars we wasted.

America will need investment in new infrastructure to thrive in the 21st century – including some well-placed megaprojects – but we can’t get there by recreating the thought processes of the 1930s. Instead, we need to invest in infrastructure that meets today’s challenges and needs – things like public transportation, clean energy infrastructure, broadband, and investments to minimize the threat to life and property posed by global warming – while simultaneously fixing the infrastructure we already have and creating the social and public policy structures that can enable us to put our infrastructure to its highest and best use.

As Congress and the public evaluate infrastructure proposals in the weeks and months ahead, it is critical that they keep in mind America’s real 21st century priorities. Getting past the notions of infrastructure investment propounded by both “economic nationalists” and New Deal nostalgists is a necessary first step in that process.

[1] 24.1 million participants versus U.S. population of 320 million in 2015.

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