Sunday, April 19, 2009

War on Bridges

Some folks don't think our infrastructure is in bad shape — or at least don't think it should be a priority of the federal government. As Bill Kristol wrote a few months back, if the government wants to spend, it should spend on national security above all else:


If you think some government action is inevitable, you might instead point out that the most unambiguous public good is national defense. You might then suggest spending a good chunk of the stimulus on national security — directing dollars to much-needed and underfunded defense procurement rather than to fanciful green technologies, making sure funds are available for the needed expansion of the Army and Marines before rushing to create make-work civilian jobs. Obama wants to spend much of the stimulus on transportation infrastructure and schools. Fine, but lots of schools and airports seem to me to have been refurbished more recently and more generously than military bases I’ve visited.

First of all, having bridges that don't fall down, faster trains, and pot-hole free roads is an "unambiguous public good." Increased productivity, better safety, and lower auto maintenance costs all come with the package. It's not "make-work" if it improves all those things. The "recentness of refurbishment" argument is amusing in its absurdity and irrelevance, but not worth any more ink (pixels?). I don't mean to argue that expansion of the army and national defense aren't important (they are), but let's move beyond the knee-jerk rejectionists and accept that it is a necessary and good thing to invest in infrastructure improvements.

But we've got another problem. Returning soldiers are more prone to suicide, violence, and unemployment than the rest of society. There are some programs to help find employment for returning veterans, such as Hire Vets First, but according to Veterans Today, many service members "possess limited transferable job skills or very little civilian work experience".

So what do these two problems have to do with each other? Simple. Besides toppling armies, killing terrorists, and maintaining order, a great deal of the work in Iraq and Afghanistan has been — you guessed it — improving infrastructure. By building roads, bridges, and schools the US military is not just trying to win hearts and minds, but improve the economy of these war-ravaged countries so that the populace has better alternatives than opium-harvesting and suicide-bombing. These soldiers with supposedly "limited transferable job skills" have been improving infrastructure while under fire from the Taliban, Sadrites, and Al Qaeda.

If we are going to spend billions — trillions? — on war and infrastructure, it seems sensible to leverage the skills - and assist in the transition to civilian life - of our veterans. And — cue feigned outrage from the Right — this is a case where direct involvement from that most fearsome institution, the federal government, might do better than piecemeal tax incentives and local organizations. A vet might not have any clout trying to get a union card to work construction the man said "son if it was up to me . . ." — but a dedicated federal infrastructure corps could easily transition returning soldiers to good (and needed) jobs at relatively little cost and great benefit to us and them.

This need not be limited to regular infrastructure improvements. We can keep the Right happy — or at least less sad — by adding the Mexico security fence to the top of the list of projects. This is a win-win opportunity, and there's a cost to doing nothing . .

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