Will: Infrastructure spending won’t transform America

“MASON CITY: To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new.”

— Robert Penn Warren, “All the King’s Men” (1946)

WASHINGTON — Appropriately, Warren began the best book about American populism, his novel based on Huey Long’s Louisiana career, with a rolling sentence about a road. Time was, infrastructure — roads, especially — was a preoccupation of populists, who were mostly rural and needed roads to get products to market, and for travel to neighbors and towns, which assuaged loneliness. Today, there is no comparably sympathetic constituency clamoring for “internal improvements,” as infrastructure was known in the 19th century when canals, and then railroads, transformed America.

What rural electrification was eight decades ago, broadband access might be today: a blessing not widely enough enjoyed. But infrastructure spending will not have the economically and socially transformative effect that it had before America became a mature urban society. Princeton historian James M. McPherson writes that before all-weather macadamized roads, it cost the same to move a ton of goods 30 miles inland as it cost to bring a ton across the Atlantic. The person who would become the 16th president began his public career advocating canal construction in Illinois, and in 1849, before he became a prosperous railroad lawyer, he received U.S. patent 6469 for a device to facilitate boats’ passages over sand bars and shallow water.

Some historians even suggest that there might not have been a Civil War for him to win if the fourth president, James Madison, had not vetoed (on constitutional grounds; he thought that no enumerated power authorized Congress to do such things) the infrastructure bill of South Carolina’s Sen. John C. Calhoun, who became a secessionist firebrand. Their theory is that improved infrastructure might have moved the …read more

Source:: The Mercury News

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