Monday, May 12, 2008

Our Crumbling Infrastructure

Unless more funding and effort are put into saving the nation's infrastructure, it will continue to crumble, say experts. An estimated $1.5 trillion over the next five years could be needed to avoid large-scale disaster.

Dave's comment: Of course, it is not just roads and bridges. The electrical transmission and distribution network is tottering, keeping it functional is in doubt, much less accomplishing the conversion from AC to DC that would dramatically lower line loss hence curtailing the need for yet more coal fired plants. But even that is fairly obvious, at least to those paying some attention. There are even worse and less obvious cases of infrastructure rot. We have hollowed out our educational infrastructure - 1/3 of Texas public school students do not graduate and the ones that do are often functionally illiterate. We have hollowed out not just the physical infrastructure to make things but the human skills needed were the plants rebuilt or refurbished. For the last 40 plus years we have more and more been seduced into the notion that the private sector will cure all ills, which is of course pure BS. The faith and hope of a people acting together through their government to secure the benefits of collective effort has been replaced with a fear and loathing of all things associated with government. We have internalized the message that taxes are an evil burden to be shed rather than a way to pool resources for the common good. So, today, if it does not return a short term profit it is simply unlikely to get done.

I watched a version of this greed and short term thinking play out in one of the most respected institutions of this country - Bell Labs; "The Labs", under the bad old AT&T monopoly. Before Judge Green threw AT&T into the briar patch (I will explain that reference, below) The Labs constituted a lavishly funded pure research world. From that environment came a steady stream of Noble laureates and discoveries ranging from radio astronomy to the semi-conductor. The "break-up" ripped the Labs in half, literally. The lunch rooms at the various Labs facilities had yellow tape down the middle. Those employees who were a part of the retained segment of The Labs sat on one side of the tape, those being "spun out" to the part of The Labs to be held by the Regional Bell Operating Companies sat on the other. Men and women who had collaborate for years could no longer even speak to each other. Then, in both segments, the profit imperative descended like volcanic dust, smothering all creativity and curiosity. It was pathetic by the time I arrived on the scene some three years after divestiture. Here were these scientists and engineers of the first water struggling to figure out what the hell to do. Useful and interesting things still struggled to sneak out, but the befuddled senior managers who had no earthly idea of how to run a company that had to compete couldn't do squat with those few meritorious efforts.

Regarding the briar patch; several years before the court declared AT&T an illegal monopoly they hired Al Toffler of "Future Shock" fame to analyze their business. He was proven just as wrong in his recommendations to the AT&T board as was his wildly optimistic and totally wrong little book. However, his recommendations to the board, while a horrible prescription, was at least an accurate prediction. The elements of Judge Green's ruling were a 100% accurate reflection of Toffler's recommendations. Gee, I wonder how that happened????


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