Why 'Infrastructure' Should Be Sexy: Lessons from Uganda, Russia, and China

I mentioned yesterday that the passage I liked best from Obama's "pass the jobs bill / pass it right away" speech was his discourse on "infrastructure." Yes, that most boring of words, which applies to all the equipment and investment that collectively distinguish first- from third-world countries.

A reader who has traveled in Africa sends this note:

>>If I had the power to snap my fingers and immediately grant every young person in "red state" America a week's vacation in Uganda, I would do it.

[After a trip there] my wife and our two teenage children and I came back "changed" in many ways and one of the most significant ways was that we no longer take for granted the vast and complex "infrastructure" of our own country

Particularly with younger voters, Obama and the Democrats would be wise over the next 14 months to continually "re-educate" these voters about the national educational, transportation, scientific and social research, health, safety, energy, communication, natural and wildlife preservation, legal, social justice, national security, law enforcement, etc. "infrastructures" that are all so crucial to the individual prosperity and opportunity available, however unevenly, to all the citizens, of this great country.<<
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We usually hear this message in the form of "Holy Moley, look what the Chinese are doing!" It's also worth considering it in the grimmer version of "here is how it looks if you just let everything run down." (Or, for most Westerners who have actually spent time in China, "here is how it looks if you let the smokestacks belch out full blast, and can't keep toxic chemicals out of the water or the food supply." At right, scene from Inner Mongolia, as described here.)

Further on the theme of letting things run down, here is a message from another reader about the terrible (and not yet fully explained) crash that killed all members of the Russian Lokomotiv hockey team this week. Emphasis added:

>>While reading an AP article on the tragic crash of a Russian airliner carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team, I zeroed in on the part speculating that the crash may have been caused by technical problems.

"The cause of Wednesday's crash was not immediately apparent, but Russian news agencies cited unnamed local officials as saying it may have been due to technical problems. The plane was built in 1993 and belonged to a small Moscow-based Yak Service company.

In recent years, Russia and the other former Soviet republics have had some of the world's worst air traffic safety records. Experts blame the poor safety record on the age of the aircraft, weak government controls, poor pilot training and a cost-cutting mentality."

I've read enough of your articles to know that it's way too early to jump to conclusions about the cause of this crash, but if Russia does have a poor record on flight safety due to lax regulations, it kind of makes you wonder if this is where we are heading in the U.S., particularly on the cost-cutting mentality.

I'm able to put up with the TSA, cramped cabins, poor service, extra fees, lack of food and etc. that has become the hallmark of modern commercial air travel, knowing that airlines (and our government) wouldn't skimp on safety.

However, with congressional budget fights over FAA funding and with intense pressure on airlines to be profitable, should we be concerned about the potential Russification of system?<<

It is worth remembering and re-emphasizing: the kinds of investments Obama was talking about constitute real wealth for a country, and their lack means real squalor, even though they are "public" wealth rather than belonging to anyone in particular. An obvious point but one now often unmentioned or overlooked.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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