Why the Infrastructure Bill Matters

The United States economy suffers from a problem that you can think of as investment-deficit disorder. For several decades, we have spent heavily on short-term consumption while ignoring many of a modern economy’s long-term needs.

As a result, other affluent countries now have better high-speed internet access and less expensive cellphone service. They have clean drinking water. They have trains that whisk people between major cities at 200 miles an hour. They do not have major airports that are disconnected from the local subway system.

The relatively decrepit state of American infrastructure acts like a tax on our economy and a drag on our well-being. It slows the movement of people and goods and reduces the quality of everyday life.

Fixing these problems is the rationale for the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that the House passed last weekend and that President Biden will sign soon. “This is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America,” Biden said on Saturday. “It puts us on a path to win the economic competition of the 21st century that we face with China and other large countries and the rest of the world.”

Even if Biden’s remarks included some hyperbole, many experts and economists consider the bill to be genuinely important.

In each of the next five years, the federal government will now spend the equivalent of about 1 percent of G.D.P. on roads, bridges, rail, public transit, water systems, broadband, power systems and more. It is the largest such investment in more than a generation. It will raise federal infrastructure spending to its highest share of G.D.P. since the early 1980s.

“Can this bill make the country more inclusive, environmentally resilient and industrially competitive?” Adie Tomer of Brookings Institution wrote. “If you step back and view it in total, the unquestionable answer is yes.”

Still, there are a few caveats:

  • One, the ideal bill probably would have been even larger, experts say, given the investment shortfalls of the past few decades. (My colleague Astead Herndon reports on specific examples from Chicago.)

  • Two, it remains unclear how well — or poorly — the new programs will be implemented, as is often the case with federal programs. Implementation, David Dayen wrote in The American Prospect, will determine whether the Biden administration is “meeting its promises or just making claims that don’t become reality.”

  • Three, I am not sure that the bill will do as much as the White House hopes to influence people’s attitudes toward government.

Biden and his aides see the bill as a way to prove to Americans that government can still do big things well. “For all of you at home who feel left behind and forgotten in an economy that’s changing so rapidly,” Biden said, “this bill is for you.”

But much of the bill’s substance remains amorphous. It focuses on expanding and improving existing infrastructure — “more and better,” as one White House official told me — as much as creating new infrastructure.

If you go looking for signature projects that will help Americans understand what the bill is doing, you will struggle to find them. The bill does not seem likely to build a subway line to La Guardia Airport or cut the travel time between Dallas and Houston in half. It will not create hundreds of bridges, as the New Deal did, or a national highway system, as Dwight Eisenhower did.

White House officials say the bill’s tangible benefits will become clearer to people in coming months and years. (In many cases, state and local agencies first need to decide what projects to pursue.) These benefits, officials add, will include better access to high-speed internet, thousands of charging stations for electric vehicles and specific new transit projects.

Maybe the White House is right about all this. For now, though, the bill risks becoming another example of what the political scientist Suzanne Mettler has called “the submerged state” — the tendency for modern American government to do its work so quietly that many citizens don’t even realize they are benefiting from it. The Obama administration’s 2009 stimulus bill, both an economic success and political disappointment, is one example.

My prediction is that the infrastructure bill’s ultimate popularity will depend on whether people can cite specific examples of how it has affected their lives.

Dispatches is an occasional Morning feature in which Times reporters offer glimpses of everyday life around the world. Today, Ben Hubbard, who has been covering the collapse of Lebanon, writes from Beirut:

Fayez Omar has spent nine years delivering meals from an Asian restaurant on his motor scooter to hungry customers around Beirut. But the collapse of Lebanon’s economy two years ago has profoundly reshaped his job.

His salary, once worth about $800 per month, is now about $130. Gas costs him three times what it used to. And since Beirut, a city of residential towers, has chronic power outages that disable elevators, he often has to climb stairs to reach his customers. Lots and lots of stairs.

“It is exhausting,” said Omar, 37 and a father of three.

Because of the crisis, most Beirutis get about two hours of electricity per day. Most buildings have diesel-powered backup generators, but the price of fuel has increased by more than 1,000 percent. Which, for Omar, means no elevators.

Some customers take pity and send down baskets on ropes from their balconies, Rapunzel-style, to save him the trip. Some agree to meet him halfway. Yet others are less kind. “They tell me, ‘I made an order,’” Omar said. “You have to come up to me.”

Appalachian Trail: M.J. Eberhart, 83, became the oldest known person to complete the 2,190-mile hike.

Inside story: “Is history a science or a patriotic art?” Behind the creation of the 1619 Project.

Debunked: Scented candles are not harmful.

The Ethicist: What do you owe a difficult mother-in-law?

Advice from Wirecutter: Slouching? Try a lumbar support pillow.

Lives Lived: Max Cleland lost both legs and an arm in the Vietnam War. In 2002, Republicans impugned his patriotism when he sought re-election to the Senate. Cleland died at 79.

Dean Stockwell, who played Al Calavicci on the science fiction series “Quantum Leap,” died at 85.

Two books published this fall bring new relevance to old — sometimes really old — human history.

The Dawn of Everything,” by the anthropologist David Graeber and the archaeologist David Wengrow, upends the prevailing narrative of social evolution: that in the millenniums between the appearance of Homo sapiens and the invention of agriculture, almost nothing happened.

The authors, citing recent discoveries, contend that early humans made collective choices about how to organize society, wealth and power. “In other words,” William Deresiewicz writes in The Atlantic, “they practiced politics.” Graeber was a de facto leader of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and his politics are apparent in the book’s message — that humanity has reinvented itself before, and can again. (New York magazine recently profiled Graeber.)

In “Powers and Thrones,” the historian Dan Jones narrows the scope to the Middle Ages. His stories of kings, conquerors and artists make for a “lively history that often reads like a novel,” the Times review says. More than simply recounting history, Jones connects the ancient world to the modern one. — Claire Moses, a Morning writer

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