If President Biden’s infrastructure plan is approved, it will be a big deal. A trillion dollar deal! Literally the biggest American infrastructure project… ever! And we need it. One hundred years ago we began building the infrastructure of America. Bridges, giant buildings, the electric power grid, telephone lines, railroads, interstate highways, and airports. Consider the New York’s Empire State building, or San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. They’re icons of American progress, and they’re nearly a century old. Many of our monumental structures are old. Few are aging well. If we want to compete with China and other rising economies we MUST repair our crumbling infrastructure!
The nature of work has changed. In the early 20th Century, our economy was driven by the move from agriculture to factories. It took a lot of government funding, but America became “the factory of the world”. In the later 20th Century, we had a new challenge. How to move from an industrial economy to a service economy. We managed the transition and became the world’s super-power. But we made the move largely by piggybacking on existing (and aging) infrastructure.
Meanwhile, other economies began their own journey from agriculture to service industry., but because they started later they used newer, more advanced technology. They could leapfrog the old copper wire technology America was built on and go straight to wireless. Countries that were relatively undeveloped a couple of decades ago now have better internet and mobile phone speeds than the US. That’s why the speed of America’s mobile phone services is rated at #18 in the world, while China rose to #4.
Some of our infrastructure is simply old and failing. We all have a “favorite” state or federal highway filled with potholes or worse. There have been 26 bridge collapses since 2000. Not all bridges are large, and some collapses were at least partially due to oversized or overweight trucks. Still, nearly a third of America’s 600,000 bridges are in urgent need of repairs. Obsolete bridges and roads are not just unsafe, they are slow. Better infrastructure will speed up traffic and make a region more productive.
Rail roads were a big part of early 20th century productivity. High-speed rail could be as important to the 21st Century as old generation rail was to the 20th Century. China has over 37,000 kilometers of high-speed rail in service and another 32,000 planned. America has 1,700 kilometers., with plans to build
But we need more than patches for our old infrastructure. We definitely need roads and telephone lines, but we also need a new generation of infrastructure to support the continuing growth of our economy. As previously stated, America’s high-speed communications are no longer competitive with top-tier nations. Under the added load of home-based workers, we all saw our internet connections sputter as the COVID Pandemic lumbered on. In lower-income neighborhoods, many students were unable to maintain a connection with their schools. Meanwhile, corporations that failed to keep their software updated and their data safe repeatedly surrendered to international gangsters, paying out ransoms to keep their operations online.
America requires advanced technology to keep the economy running. Today, internet connectivity and data security are as important as telephones and railroads were a century ago. Nations like China have very advanced firewall technology that prevents (or mitigates) ransomware and other cyberattacks. Crime and war are shifting to the virtual world, and America’s cyber defenses could definitely use an upgrade. However, China’s firewall strategy comes with two BIG caveats for American culture.
First, the “Great Firewall of China” is also pretty good at preventing the citizens of China from saying anything negative about China. The price of our future safety may be a lot higher than just the cost of equipment and software. Second, if a major Chinese corporation or government institution is successfully hacked, it is highly unlikely that China will publicly admit this sort of failure.
America is hacked millions of times every year. We assume that most hacks are small, but there is growing evidence that these hacks happen far more often than we believe… or are told. Public corporations are legally required by the Security Exchange Commission (SEC) to report all attacks. But front-page news of a big corporate security failure could shave billions of dollars off of stock valuations. From the technician who first detects the breach to the approval of a public announcement by the Board of Directors, not one will want to be associated with this failure.
Trucks and cars will inevitably be self-driving. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe later. But even today a lot of the functions in cars, trucks, trains, ships, and airplanes are at least partially controlled by computers and can be directed remotely. Our transpiration systems are increasingly linked via the Internet. Something could go catastrophically wrong. Whether it is a failure of the technology or weakness in security doesn’t really matter. As more of our lives are linked to technology, we need better infrastructure to make it all work together.
And more technology is being linked together! In relatively controlled areas, such as ports, mines, and logging roads… self-driving vehicles are taking over. These are all privately owned roads and workplaces, as opposed to state or federal roadways. If a truck drives a route 1,000 miles long, it may pass through hundreds of municipalities, federal highways, state-managed bridges… and each of these organizations may have separate rules for how self-driving vehicles can operate. Anyone municipality that is on a critical route may be able to block or challenge self-driving vehicles. There are 30,000 municipalities in America.
But a dedicated, privately owned timber road or mining site can have much more limited forms of traffic, making the area easier to manage and making the software easier to write. It won’t be quite as predictable as a factory, but it will be easier to run a pilot for autonomous vehicles than attempting to drive robot cars in the middle of a city. Private roads and worksites are the testbeds for work in the larger world. Autonomous vehicles (and other work robots) are operating on private property today, without any human operators.
Just as cars and trucks are turning autonomous, commercial airlines, railroads, and ships are also being automated. As the world became global, the cost and time to move freight around the world have become a key factors in the world’s economy. Some items, such as fresh fruit, can only last a certain amount of time. Other goods represent a financial loss if they are stuck in transit for too long. And of course, more international executives are interested in investing in another nation if it is convenient for them to get there.
Modern commercial airlines are very efficient and have a lot of automation features. The last propeller-driven commercial airliner was the Lockheed Constellation, which held 65 to 90 passengers, had a cockpit crew of 5. Early jets followed this staffing pattern. Through the years automation has increased. A 787, carrying 300 passengers, can fly a route with as little as 2 pilots. That’s a remarkable change, from 1 crew member for every 15 passengers to one for every 150. That’s a key issue in airline profitability.
Another key element is our aging radar system. When you are on a flight, have you noticed all of the “turn to the right, turn to the left” maneuvers your plane takes? On the ground are is a network of radar towers. For safety reasons, planes must fly routes where they can be monitored by radar. But these towers don’t cover every square mile of America, and even with all of the commercial radar systems in the world, much of the world’s oceans are out of radar range. A satellite-based radar system would increase passenger safety, and… by eliminating these gaps… reduce the time and length (and time) of domestic flights by a third. That not only increases passenger comfort, it reduces the cost of flights, as well as reducing the carbon footprint of the airline industry.
Will Biden’s Infrastructure initiative support the development of “pilotless” passenger airlines and satellite radar? Or will it just focus on just rebuilding traditional copper, steel, and concrete infrastructure? No matter what the answer is, there’s going to be a lot of building going on. Interestingly, even before the pandemic, there had a labor shortage. Especially for entry-level workers.
In the 1980s and 1990s, America tapped its last great unused labor pool. Women workers. Today more college students, more new workers, and more new managers are women. As tens of millions more women attended college or engage in work, who was left to clean the house, cook dinner, or mow the lawn? This employment vacuum led to rising illegal immigration. The approximately 3 million illegals in 1990, became over 12 million by 2015. America now views immigration far more negatively. Yet, we are still desperate to fill the jobs that deported immigrants have vacated.
This “Perfect Storm” of too many jobs and too few workers will surely lead to massive automation. In the past, the main driver for automation has been the lack of labor, rather than the desire to cut costs. But a few years later, when the economy dips, a bit of automation becomes a Tsunami of automation that can completely eliminate certain jobs. Construction work has been a major entry point for the American Dream for many young Americans.
But America’s huge infrastructure project (and the money that comes with it) is likely to eliminate many of today’s 4 million truck driver jobs and 11 million construction jobs. But if we don’t create a more automated cost-effective construction industry, it will not only negatively affect US businesses, it will make it very difficult to compete for international construction work. As Asia and Africa continue to develop economically, trillions of dollars of new buildings and infrastructure will be needed.
So, what will it be? Will Biden get sign-off on a transformative infrastructure bill? Or will America be overtaken by China and other nations that are more willing to invest in the infrastructure of the 21st Century? Tell us what you think!