Monday, August 20, 2007

Crisis = Opportunity

Over the past couple years, America has literally been coming apart at the seams.

The first blowout, of course, was Katrina, which ripped open the southeast corner of the country and left exposed every ugly bulge and flap of wretched naked flesh that had been so long straining underneath -- the loss of buffering wetlands, the fetid toxic ooze of industry and agriculture, the murderously criminal lapses in economic and political equality, and the total collapse of America's ability to maintain the very infrastructure it depends on for its survival.

At first we thought it was just a one-off, the kind of freak act-of-God that seems to happen every so often. But, in the months that followed, nobody could fail to notice that the entire national garment that weaves us together economically, socially, and geographically was suddenly shredding everywhere all at once, like a pair of cheap Wal-Mart jeans crumbling into rags after the third washing. Jammed airports. Falling bridges. Decrepit schools. Pharmaceuticals in the water. It's like that nightmare where you're walking down Main Street and all your clothes just fall to ribbons at your feet. And with our Democrats AWOL and our investor class quaffing Perrier Jouet in St. Bart's and our National Guard and their equipment stuck in the sands of Iraq, there's nobody standing by to hand us so much as a blanket to cover ourselves, let alone help us stitch it all back up again. (Our Littlest Emperor, of course, is no help at all: he's been wandering around wearing nothing but a codpiece and cowboy hat for years, and still thinks he's the best-dressed man in town.)

Infrastructure -- an issue nobody was even talking about two years ago -- is suddenly back on everyone's minds. I'd like to take a moment to step back and get the long view on how we got here -- and what it all means about where we're going.

Americans have historically gone through cycles when it comes to this stuff. We'll typically invest aggressively in infrastructure for about four decades, building up impressive networks of railroads, trading companies, streetcars, and telegraph wires (as we did from 1850-1890), or interstate highways, dams, colleges, levees, and electrical grids (as we did from 1930-1970). These efforts are always promoted by bold progressive governments, driven by their eagerness to build an infrastructure that takes advantage of new technologies and reflects the latest social values. They enjoy strong support from forward-thinking business leaders who recognize that these public investments will, in the long run, enhance their ability to expand their interests and accrue private wealth. They also inevitably spark a renaissance in engineering, education, and science as the country mobilizes. And this, in turn, births entire new industries and creates millions of stable, highly-skilled, high-paying jobs -- which provides the broad and sturdy platform on which a large and thriving middle class soon rises.

And so it goes for a long while...until, historically, the boom comes to an end. At some point, the big projects are all pretty much built -- the last rail is laid, man walks on the moon -- and suddenly, there's no real pressing need for new ones. Instead, the middle class, secure in four decades of prosperity and fat from healthy unions, starts acting like it has rights, and agitates instead for wider social changes -- as happened with the rise of the original Progressives in the early 20th century, and again in the 1960s. The upper classes, threatened by the uppity middle, don't see why their taxes should pay for another damned public project that will support these ingrates. They retreat from public investment, agitate for tax cuts, and go on a piggy spree that, fairly predictably, bankrupts the nation. And that ripping, popping, seam-splitting sound you hear now, is of course, the inevitable result. Compare 1890-1930 to 1970-now. Same piggies, different cycle.

Eventually, New Orleans floods (as it did in 1926, and again in 2005). And people notice that it's been 40 years since anything really new or modern has been built -- or, in too many cases, even properly maintained and repaired. City Hall needs paint. The school is unuseable. The dam is growing cracks. And -- this is the critical part -- they also notice that even the parts of the old system that still work fine don't really reflect the way they want to live any more. If they had it to do over, they'd do something very different now.

That's where we are now. Yeah, things are falling apart all over America. Nothing works like it used to. That's the crisis. But, at the same time, we're also realizing that the way of life that old infrastructure supported isn't what we want anymore, either. And therein lies the opportunity.

It's not enough to just prop up the bridges, widen the interstates, add runways to the airports, and build higher levees. The things we want now are not the things our grandparents wanted when they built those things. (In fact, we're dealing with some unpleasant consequences of their old choices, and are fervently wishing they'd known then what we know now.) We've got very different ways of interpreting and analyzing the world, and are coming to very different conclusions as a result. And we've got access to technology and materials they couldn't have dreamed of. Therefore: we need to take the larger view, to step back and recognize that the collapse of our current infrastructure is a moment of creative destruction -- a once-in-a-lifetime chance to clear the decks and do it over, putting the knowledge we've gained to work in the service of the priorities of our own era.

We can enhance tired concrete highways with high-speed transit lines, and and turn pedestrian-hostile city boulevards into walkable urban spaces. Global warming is forcing us to re-think our approach to air and sea travel; any new infrastructure needs to be moving us toward better solutions for these petro-monsters. Our notions of security are also vastly different now, and that debate will become fiercer with every new public space we build. Our future competitiveness depends on getting fiberoptic networks to every front door, computers in every home, and mobile connectivity in every hand. Our efforts to reduce carbon will force us to re-think the way we plan cities, grow food, build houses, conduct trade, commute to work...and whatever we build from here forward needs to incorporate our best ideas about how all that should work now.

Of course, all of this needs to be done consciously, with deep appreciation for the best of what we've inherited. Not everything needs to come down. Our ancestors got quite a few things right the first time -- and those things deserve to be repaired, restored, and lovingly incorporated into our new plans. It's absolutely possible (and necessary) to honor and recycle the best of the past without also being stuck with the worst of it.

We also need to consider the social consequences of our actions. The best way to do this is keep a firm grip on our deepest values, and make sure that the choices we make overtly support and sustain our vision of the world. If reducing carbon is a value, we do not build coal plants, period. If community integrity is a value, we don't build projects (like freeways) that shatter the physical boundaries of communities. We also need to remember that our entire national infrastructure is an ecology unto itself: it has evolved over a very long period of time; everything has a reason for being there (though that reason may not longer exist, it's good to be mindful of what it was); and when you change one thing, you are going to create changes throughout the system -- and other systems as well. We understand these connections in a way our grandparents did not; and that, all on its own, is going to lead us to act in different ways, and create a very different physical environment for our children.

And we have to be honest about why the worst is so bad. Most of us have known for 40 years that the landscape we were living is wasn't feeding our aspirations for what a human landscape should be. It didn't reflect our visions and priorities; it didn't acknowledge the new, more holistic ways our generation was learning to see the world. Many of us have felt alienated -- even oppressed -- by our dependence on infrastructure that we knew was inflicting daily damage on everything from the local ecology to the social contract. It's time to confront that alienation, and make the choices we know will really matter.

Now, in the unfolding crisis, we have our one and only chance to do it over, and do it right. We're looking pretty tattered now -- but you know, those old faded, shredding jeans don't really suit us any more anyway, and we shouldn't be afraid to let go of them. It's time for something new and gorgeous and tailor-made for us, something that flatters the body we have now -- and will be more practical for the lives we expect our children and grandchildren to be living over the next century. We'll dress it up with modern titanium shades and Grandma's best black hat -- and step out into the world feeling like some new and fabulous thing, at peace with the past and eager to greet the future.

It may look for all the world like a great, big, ripping disaster. But it's not. It's just a creative challenge -- the same challenge history presents every fourth generation, renewing us by making new heroes and geniuses and fortunes even as it restores the middle class, our national ingenuity, and our own sense of competence.

Let's get this war over with, put some Democrats in charge, and get down to work. This is going to be more fun that we've ever had -- and, consciously or not, I think millions of us have been a long time beyond ready to get started. It's time.