“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” George Bernard Shaw
It’s now been three months since my first article on the Biden Infrastructure plan, just after the election. We are thirty-three days into the new Administration – exactly 1/3 of the way through the first 100 days made famous by FDR – and not much besides talk has happened on the infrastructure front. The Texas blackouts, China catching up to us in AI and threatening a blockade of rare earths, and an economy in which annual productivity growth has leveled off at an abysmal, historic, rate below 1%, are all reason enough for concern. But something is missing – something to jolt us wide awake if we are going to change our outlook, and this time create a real infrastructure initiative.
This is not a critique of the Biden Administration, but a critique of… us. I am getting that same sense of deja vu as I got in the last four Administrations – a strategic initiative is within our grasp, but moving away. We are a serious country, but we’re not serious about infrastructure. Why is that? As I highlight in my forthcoming book – Vision: Our Strategic Infrastructure Roadmap Forward – a country moves resources toward infrastructure when very strong leadership sets forth a vision that a country finds believable, and then generates political capital by systematically turning that promise into reality. Magic happens when results are actually achieved – less congestion, cleaner water, better jobs – and people start to trust institutions (government, Congress, markets).
This time is different, because digitization and electrification are barreling toward us – and I know what I’m talking about, because I just bought a Tesla Model S (ludicrous mode!). As Jeff Berns, the visionary head of Innovation Park in Nevada said in an interview for the Vision book, “infrastructure is about how we want to live in the future.”
Our infrastructure conversation sounds for all the world as if we want to focus on fixing old things, while what we should be doing – what we must do – is throw the weight of investment toward imagining and creating new things.
Five adjustments need to be made in terms of how government is supposed to work in driving a real infrastructure initiative. We haven’t had an infrastructure initiative in over 50 years, so how we ‘think it’s supposed to work,’ particularly given 5G, AI, machine learning and massive electrification requiring unparalleled levels of speed in decision making, is irrelevant. We are all moving into a very different world, for better or for worse, together.
Here are five changes that can be made by the Biden Administration now:
Infrastructure is a First Order Issue. The mental model of the national political class doesn’t see infrastructure as a first order issue – it tends to be fourth in the list of the top 3, and in this Administration it is just after Covid, immigration and something else. It’s a very hard issue, and we have $28 trillion in national debt. Infrastructure is always a first order electoral issue, because it goes deep with people. Whether I have clean water, safe and rapid transit and reliable electricity is personal with me, just as it is with people all around the country. But it’s strange that infrastructure is not a first order issue for policy elites, since robust infrastructure investment is as strategic for economic growth, equity and environmental stewardship, as it is for the fundamentally critical exercise of soft power globally.
Infrastructure Needs an Office in the White House. Moving an infrastructure project forward requires decisions by 17 different federal agencies, on average. No champion within the bureaucracy can effectively reach out to other agencies, since this lane-changing is precisely how bureaucracy does not work. Bureaucrats – smart, responsible, patriotic – need leadership to provide direction and cover, and encourage them to break through silos to get big things done. “Dare Mighty Things,” as Nasa’s Mars team dared – and did! The White House office overseeing infrastructure across all sectors – from energy, to transit, to rural broadband – will focus on digitization and electrification. Call it the National Infrastructure Council, and – given that it touches on all priority issues of the Biden Administration, and our country – raise it up to a level on par with the National Economic Council. Infrastructure projects and priorities need daily face time with the president.
The Focus Needs to be on Creating Project Results. Producing immediate results is necessary for our political system – how does this work, when the average highway project takes 9.5 years to move through the approval process, and 4.5 years after that for results – say cars, or autonomous trucks, zipping down the freeway? Lucky for us we are not starting from scratch – we have an enormous pent-up backlog of projects that can start showing results… this year.
By results I don’t just mean creating new and well-paying jobs, or saving the thousands of struggling professional service firms that are in danger of turning off their computers, rather what I mean is addressing the Administration’s priorities in the way that infrastructure professionals think about investment (yes, these people exist – and they are as smart as economists!):
- Brownfield projects – you can revitalize Army Corps reservoirs, or put 5G on interstate highways, or authorize the Gateway tunnel, or make rural broadband really fast, right now, tomorrow,
- Greenfield projects – infrastructure is a ‘thinking short, thinking long’ business, so while you are speeding up investment in ultra high voltage transmission lines, you can also get moving on the Brent Spence Bridge, and by the end of 2024 you can get butts in seats on the Dallas/Houston high speed rail project, and the Great Lakes Basin highway project, and
- New Infrastructure – this is the low-hanging fruit, and the battlefield between China and the U.S. for global influence, period. Largely private, and almost wholly environmentally friendly, this is where our economy has tremendous strengths that we are not seeing. It’s also the battlefield – AI, Machine Learning, 5G, Autonomy, High Voltage Transmission, along with high speed rail – that is critical to the achievement of every single goal that our country can set for the future.
Every infrastructure person – and every citizen – across the country can tell you the five projects that they’d like to see happen. The map above is a 500 project stimulus map that my firm, CG/LA infrastructure, created by polling people around the country. Why not engage citizens now, and show results this year, picking up steam in 2022 and in 2023?
Infrastructure is 5G/AI and Electrification, and it Needs a Budget. The infrastructure of the future is going to be as different as cellular is from fixed line telephony, and that future is coming at us extremely fast… The 2020’s will be a decade of disruption – the greatest period of disruption in 100 years or more. We can either continue our course, and try and weather the storm, or we can make the kind of strategic investments that will allow us to lead – with enormous environmental and equity benefits, coupled with the kind of productivity increases that come from rapid innovation. There couldn’t be a bigger difference between the way that China is going about new infrastructure creation, with their top down, devil may care about the individual approach, and our celebration of the individual. The problem – in democracies around the world – is that we are absent, and so China is winning.
Leaders Set Goals, Achieve Goals – and Create Trust. Who is in charge of infrastructure? Without an infrastructure office it is hard to tell, and this is a fatal flaw problem. The presidency needs to to bring everyone together to discuss what world we want to create, what our infrastructure vision going forward will look like. This needs to happen fast – and then we need to set goals that we all agree to: projects completed, time to project approvals, life expectancy, reduction of traffic congestion, reduction in carbon by sector, even increases in infrastructure equity. I am a business guy – everything is opportunity. Then we (all of us) need to row hard in the same direction, and achieve those goals.
Action This Day. If we can get this right, the results for all of us will be extraordinary – domestic growth, environmental leadership and an injection of strength into the global democratic model. Unimaginable things can quickly be envisioned, and developed, including the return of manufacturing (advanced and distributed manufacturing) to our newly digitized and electrified heartland. Infrastructure can bring us together, but it is a very heavy lift – as in war, the first thing a president things about in the morning, and the last thing he thinks about before going to bed at night.
China understands clearly the strategic nature of digitization and electrification, and has already committed more than $2 trillion, through 2025, to this effort. We’re kind of lost in a middle world in which, as a U.S. president said to the proponent of a game-changing infrastructure project: “I’m not sure that your project rises to the level of the presidency.”
It does, it must, and I believe it will.
It looks to me like…
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