Hurricane Harvey is wreaking devastation on Houston and other parts of southern Texas. Rebuilding will cost many tens or perhaps even hundreds of billions of dollars. But what then?
Climate disasters like Harvey illustrate an undeniable fact: American infrastructure is living on borrowed time. We not only need large new investments to bring things up to par, we need a surge of national investment to address the dangers of living in a riskier climate.
One recurrent story in the modern age is poking around some neglected area of American life and discovering some threadbare New Deal project or program that is keeping the country tottering along on two legs. There are literally tens of thousands of examples — from the Lincoln Tunnel (still carrying over 50,000 vehicles daily), LaGuardia Airport (handling over 80,000 passengers daily), or the Grand Coulee Dam (still the fifth-largest source of electricity in the country) on the big end, to an endless slew of roads, schools, and post offices on the small end. During the peak years of the New Deal, one single agency, the Public Works Administration, consumed half the concrete and one-third of the steel output of the entire country doing this stuff.
Among these relics are the two major flood control reservoirs protecting downtown Houston: Addicks Reservoir and Barker Reservoir, authorized by the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1938 and built by the Army Corps of Engineers. After subsequent upgrades and repairs, they are still functioning today — though they are in need of serious work. Back in 2009 they were deemed to be at "extremely high risk of catastrophic failure" due to their age and proximity to downtown, but the Corps has opted for a series of minor patches, not having had the money or initiative to do the necessary total overhaul. Due to the torrential rain from Harvey, both are right now nearly full and are having to release water to keep from overflowing.
All this is a microcosm of the general condition of the United States: coasting on an increasingly rickety foundation our grandparents put up at tremendous effort and expense. Our ruling class, like some addle-brained late Habsburg monarch, is not only ignoring the problem, but denying the very necessity of public investment in the first place.
The simple fact is that the United States could not possibly exist in its hyper-wealthy form — and probably not at all — without tremendous public investment in infrastructure. As societies grow wealthier, they necessarily require more and more sophisticated transportation, communication, and education. Highways, airports, rail networks, telephone and internet, schools, and so forth all require extensive government spending and regulation to function. Indeed, many absolutely vital systems — like the GPS satellite network — are to this day still owned and operated by the federal government.
The libertarian fantasy of the night watchman state was not utterly ludicrous back in the 19th century. But in the 20th, it became so. During the Great Depression, a laissez-faire "self-regulating" market system seized up and collapsed, and orthodox capitalist measures of austerity and tight money only made it worse. It took gargantuan New Deal projects — many of them the largest of their kind ever built up to that point — along with huge war spending, to put the country on a footing where it could continue to grow and develop.
But after a generation of ideological battering, laissez-faire made a comeback in the form of neoliberalism, and public investment was once again deprecated. New projects were often "public-private partnerships" or other such badly camouflaged giveaways to big business. Worse, the investment that did happen under neoliberalism was increasingly slow, incompetently managed, and hideously expensive. After a generation of neglect, critical infrastructure across the country, from Houston dams to the New York subway system, is falling apart.
Today, America is not only looking at the bill coming due for decades of procrastination, we face dramatically increased infrastructure requirements due to the threat of climate change. The entire power generation and transmission system must be rebuilt to slash carbon emissions; it and transportation and communication networks must be overhauled to increase resilience. And as we're seeing in Houston, flood protection and drainage systems must be radically strengthened to handle a hugely increased risk of extreme storms.
Failing to rise to the occasion will only mean spending even more on disaster cleanup. While it may be expensive to build new flood control projects across the nation, it will be much cheaper than rebuilding drowned cities, one after the other. Let's get cracking.