What Is Infrastructure?


When talking about infrastructure it is fine to talk about specific physical infrastructures like roads and public transport, about walkable cities and such – about underground pipes and cable and sewers and electrical and potable water supply.   Walkable cities are nice.  I know.  I live in one.  But there are many walkable places in the world.  The VAST majority of them are small towns, places with few services and bad infrastructure.

I will say that having been over a good bit of southern Peru, I have seen what a handicap it is to a country when such things are missing or inadequate. It was like driving over speed bumps/humps spaced at 5″ intervals.  As a mechanical engineer who has worked many years on well-designed systems, seeing an entire country hamstring by terrifically horrible roads was a shock of the first order.  Third world country?  Try perhaps fourth world.  So I appreciate all those items of infrastructure, very viscerally.  I’ve seen and helped build good and even great ones, and I have seen what happens when they are not even close to being good.  And I am thankful for the many billions of hours of design and construction of any properly functioning physical infrastructure.

I am not saying anything that most of us don’t already know, but pointing out that certain things are part of our infrastructure may be a useful reminder… and perhaps instructional to others. . .

To begin, there is a deep(er) infrastructure also – not so obvious but just as important as roads and cable cars and commuter trains. That deep infrastructure has a lot more to it than ‘just’ movement of people and sewage and drinkable water.

That infrastructure begins with intellectual and semi-intellectual things like the US Constitution – often called the framework of our society. And every society has a constitution – from socialistic communism to totalitarian to democracy to parliamentary, to federalism. Without a Constitution upon which to base laws, defining what is allowed from what is not allowed and what is punished and HOW it is punished, there IS no country, is no society.  I say “semi-intellectual” because the implementation of that Constitution did not happen when the 9th out of 13 states ratified it.  Making it WORK was an effort that was mostly but not entirely intellectual.  A lot of elbow grease and burning of the midnight oil was part of it, too.  Not a little browbeating was done to make the Constitution valid and strong and enduring.  (I believe Alexander Hamilton was a victim of that struggle, even as I am somewhat a fan of Aaron Burr for having shot him.)

Below a constitution are legal codes and laws that govern everything from intellectual property to real property (ownership of land and buildings) and extends to educational systems by which tomorrow’s adults are taught how to work as functionally as possible within the society. If today’s adults don’t educate tomorrow’s, any society dies a fairly quick death. And if tomorrow’s adults are educated better than the last generation, that is a strong framework for a better tomorrow for everyone.

The legal system could just as easily be termed our legal infrastructure, because it puts limits on our behaviors and allows our citizenry to sleep securely, knowing that others are not free to arrive in the night and squat on our lands, in our houses, in our bathrooms. That is not an exaggeration, because British soldiers used to be free at times to do just that. Hence the 4th Amendment. Does it matter to you as a homeholder that the squatters are homeless people in our backyards or soldiers or state militia come to fight on your behalf? Not a whit, when they are invading your space. But the laws cover so much more – and should, to ensure security but also peace of mind and security of investments in homes and shops.

Having a deeds office to go to so that we know how and where to go to file our property claims. Having a DMV to go to to control (and not overcontrol) who can drive and who cannot, who has proven qualified and who has not, whose cars are qualified to travel our roads and which do not. Infrastructure.

Having business structures that coordinate our efforts to provide goods and services is also part of the infrastructure – the framework within which we work. Millennia ago the division of labor accelerated the ability for societies to function. For example, google ‘Sumeria tablets’.   Written recordings of exchanges, purchase orders and bills of lading and invoices are not modern inventions. Structure. Organization. Facilitating of work to do more. And more. And more.

The division of labor allowed us to produce more and – is a side benefit, but so very real – to lower the cost of items. Its very existence makes our modern world possible. It enabled what may be the greatest boon to growth and civilization ever – interchangeable parts. That is the generic tool/system by which your smart phone is a billion times more powerful than Eniac, the first building-sized computer.  Infrastructure.  Can’t do without it.

And let’s not leave out intellectual property, including the Patent Office, which facilitates the development of new ideas.  Infrastructure. No patent office, no protections, all equals no inventions.

Hospitals, parks, banks, garbage pickup, street flushing, street signage, noise ordinances, stoplights, established control of broadcast frequencies, 110VAC and 220VAC voltages, standardized screw sizes – there are a gajillion little things that define and encourage our prosperity and peace of mind – things we can just ‘plug into and go’, in a sense. Yes, also include distributor networks for getting our food to us and the goods we buy to us. Amazon and FedEx and UPS are all part of our infrastructure. So are those monstrous distribution centers in places like Memphis and in and around every metro area. If someone’s product is never brought to your awareness – is not put in front of you in some way – you will never buy it. If enough ‘yous’ don’t buy it, the product dies and perhaps takes a company and its employees with it. Those distributors take a lot of heat, but without them cities could not exist.  Its not just what mode of transportation or what routes are how efficient, it is whether someone thinks the stability level is sufficient so that they know the lay of the land as they begin to make something they think others want or need. There are many ways to fail in business. Societies who eliminate the obstacles the most will always be the prosperous societies. Infrastructure counts.  And it is everywhere.

Most intimate of all is our personal space infrastructure – our bodies and their health. Without health, we cannot earn a living and would need to depend on others (who become our infrastructure in a very real way). Without health we cannot hold jobs, and we become non-participators in the prosperity of our society.  Keeping citizens healthy is necessary for them and all those around them, not least of which is their employers. Without employees who show up dependably, a company is well and truly hamstrung. Keeping the highest percentages of people healthy and able to work should always be a priority. For all advanced countries in the world except the USA, this latter is a given. Infrastructure begins in our bodies. Roads and commuter trains and sidewalks are in more outer peripheries of importance; if we can’t get out of bed, no road does us any good that day – nor our employers.

Infrastructure. It all fits together, and it NEEDS to fit together, in one gestalt, one overall whole. Any one part of it that is not well cared for becomes a handicap, for the individual, for the economy, for the country. Peru’s handicaps aren’t restricted to its horrible roads. But they sure don’t help. America’s handicaps aren’t restricted to our health care system or the dismantling of our educational system since Nixon. But those sure as hell don’t help.

The GOP is stupid in that it can not see any wider picture than their personal investment accounts and property holdings. They believe too ften that they did it all themselves, by the good results of decisions that they made. But thos decisions disn’t happen in a void. They knew that good roads exist, that distributor networks exist, that the deed to their manufacturing property not only existed, but existed within a system that protects their claim. They knew that shipping companies exist to carry their goods reliably to customers (or their website efficiently handles downloads to their buyers).

Yes, Elizabeth Warren pointed all this out to businessmen several months ago, and she was right. And what she was talking about was the deep infrastructure, much of which is not tangible/touchable with our fingers, even though it is VERY real. And it is a much wider framework than just roads and routes and delivery trucks and sewers and storm drains and cables.

And satellites! And THE INTERNET and its infrastructure. “NET” is correct. “WEB” is correct. And not just the electronic one.

The Skeleton

One last thing:  IMVHO, it is the single function of government to create the best, most efficient physical and legal infrastructure possible for its citizens and its companies, to FACILITATE prosperity at all levels.  At all levels.  Whatever level might be left out handicaps the country. Not all infrastructure is done by the government, but with its capacity to affect the physical and functional and legal workings of a nation, it is the skeleton upon which a country is built. Without it doing its job, the country must collapse, sooner rather than later.  Sooner because without the physical and legal infrastructure there really is no later nation, just a wild west with predators and prey and a sorry demise.
IMHO, those who oppose any of the forms of infrastructure are actually traitors to the overall society, be they anarchists or libertarians or individualists.  The grand overall infrastructure exists for all to partake of it and partake IN it.  To destroy any part is to try to destroy all of it.  It is the common heritage and the society’s strength.

Having strong muscles means nothing if the skeleton they are attached to are brittle and fragile and gelatinous.

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