Infrastructure After the Wreckage of the Election

Infrastructure After the Wreckage of the Election

During election cycles, voters often have a difficult time holding candidates accountable for addressing consequential issues because politics and journalism as entertainment overwhelm true policy aspirations. Now that the most highly contentious election in a generation has ended, there may be an opening to address one such issue: sustained and vigorous infrastructure investment.

My firm commissioned a poll by Ipsos, a world class data analysis firm, to determine the impact of political discourse on accomplishing substantial change in infrastructure policy At first blush, the results are catastrophic for the infrastructure community — and the country.

The subject of infrastructure barely cracks the top 10 in terms of preeminent public concerns. While terrorism, perhaps rightfully, ranks at 37 percent, only 7 percent of respondents viewed infrastructure as a primary concern — behind morality (9 percent) and slightly ahead of the environment (6 percent). 

This is a big problem. One veteran of the early Obama White House once told me: “If infrastructure is not a top three issue, then nothing will get done. There will be no oxygen for it.”

So how do we raise infrastructure investment above politics? There are powerful hints in the Ipsos poll that it could be elevated to a top national priority. Two concerns directly related to infrastructure polled very well: The economy was seen by 26 percent of respondents as the most important issue, while unemployment clocked in at 15 percent. Tying infrastructure to what it can achieve economically, and how it can meet our critical needs, will help create a much more compelling call to action.

Think of infrastructure outlays not in the ephemeral terms of our politics, but in terms of long-term investments for our country's success. In that sense, infrastructure is similar to an automobile engine: It’s true value lies in what it can move — in this case, the economy — and where it can take you: a better economic life, with more opportunities and meaningful high-paying jobs. 

A dedicated team at my company spent the past year constructing a plan for the next administration to create a professional infrastructure system for our country. Titled Blueprint 2025, the project offers 19 specific policy recommendations based upon in-depth interviews with private and public sector thought leaders throughout the U.S.

Those probed identified three overarching obstacles to infrastructure action, and it is in the light of those challenges — and possibilities — that we can connect the dots for the next administration.

First, infrastructure is a long-term financial commitment, yet the government scores it as a static expense. So long as bureaucratic auditors characterize infrastructure as nothing other than a cost, there will be no reason to measure it against business growth, tax base incrementation, or the creation of quality career opportunities. Instead, we need to visualize and measure the benefits of infrastructure dynamically to reflect the additional economic activity and revenue that such investment generates.

Second, infrastructure is a first-level imperative, and the incoming administration needs to treat it as a clear and powerful priority. Is infrastructure only highways and bridges, as most people in the Ipsos poll believe? Or does it include power generation, clean and safe water, including in areas such as Flint, Michigan, wireless Internet connectivity, and the new projects of tomorrow such as driverless vehicles and the broader sharing economy? We need to define infrastructure to include all of the above and to understand the rewards of reimagined communities, a reenergized manufacturing base, and a reinvigorated trading strategy.

Third, and most critical, infrastructure is our roadmap to the future. It is a first-class consideration, but one that the government administers and budgets as a line item. The U.S. currently outlays only 1.3 percent of its Gross Domestic Product on infrastructure — an astounding 43 percent of what was spent on it at the beginning of the 1980s — and offers no dedicated budget and no cabinet level department to oversee it. That must change.

To elevate infrastructure to a top priority for Americans, we need to make clear its importance for economic growth and long-term job creation — issues that transcend election cycles. Then we will be in a position to build the kind of policy and institutional support that will generate 3 to 4 percent GDP growth, renewed export success, and a rejuvenated U.S. infrastructure presence throughout the world.

We cannot afford to hold infrastructure decisions hostage to political cycles. It damages our ability to imagine, invest in, and help create that prosperous future that remains among the highest and most cherished priorities of our voters. 

Norman F. Anderson is the President and CEO of CG/LA Infrastructure, a nonpartisan global consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Infrastructure. Twitter handle: @anderson_norman

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