Trillion Dollar Paint Job
pirate wires #49 // "infrastructure" isn't infrastructure, banning crypto (still not infrastructure), the price of ambition, and a road trip through america's essential spending
Infrastructure and chill. A couple weeks back, Twitter’s Bluecheck Anti-moon Crew was furious at the notion of people in space. They couched their temper tantrum in the evolving Marxist rhetoric surrounding our imaginary “billionaire problem,” but a look back at the discourse makes clear the trend for many has nothing to do with money. As I argued in American Spaceman, these people really just don’t like space. Not even our publicly-operating NASA, with its paltry $24.8 billion dollar budget, has escaped the ire of shortsighted luddites like Bernie Sanders. Now this week, as if to make the case, our Senate passed a $1.2 trillion dollar spending bill for “Real Infrastructure,” which is to say something like $500 billion dollars on the “modernization” of physical infrastructure that in large part already exists, and another $700 billion dollars on… I mean I’m not even sure how to characterize these items. There are spending allocations for healthcare, childcare, and care for the elderly. There’s a lot of niche “green” programming, there’s military stuff, there’s ambiguous social justice stuff. Critics of the infrastructure bill have mostly focused on the bullshit we’re buying with our newly-minted cash, but it looks like we’re also banning cryptocurrency (destroying things is infrastructure!), and this is not even the bill’s biggest problem. The question consuming me today is how did we come all this way, spend all this money, and not build anything new?
Infrastructure spending is broadly popular, which is likely why this new “infrastructure” bill has a decent amount of bi-partisan support. This is also why so many projects that have nothing to do with infrastructure are framed in such dishonest terms. Infrastructure is exciting. Bridges and tunnels and roads — emotionally, this kind of building recalls a period of American history in which we constructed the physical stuff of our country. Connecting the nation by rail, for example, birthed entire cities, and from a wilderness we built a civilization. That memory lives inside us, animating our cultural sense of self even today, and tapping into that sense of self makes for potent, optimistic politics. It’s a sort of politics I’m taken by myself. At a time of sclerosis and bureaucratic failure, when many of us feel small, the promise of heroic building feels like hope. But, in the first place, heroic building just isn’t what we’re doing here.
In a friendly summary from the New York Times, the sprawling, chaotic, 2,700 page bill is reduced to the following: $110 billion dollars for roads, bridges, and “transportation programs,” including a program focused on convincing kids to walk to school; $73 billion for refurbishing present infrastructure in a more environmentally-friendly manner, $7.5 billion of which is notably set aside for building electric vehicle charging stations, and also including some ambiguous “investment” funding; $65 billion for broadband; $66 billion to repair a bunch of Amtrak trains; $200 billion for pandemic relief in the form of what seems like fairly straightforward welfare programming. It also looks like we finally found $55 billion dollars to replace our lead pipes. These are, as far as I can tell, most of our spending bright spots, and they don’t add up to $1.2 trillion dollars.
From here, we could take a look at all of the really obviously not infrastructural stuff. We could talk about invasive plant removal; or the tens of millions of dollars we’re allocating to the “study” of things like taxes and deer; or the $7.5 billion dollars we’re spending on ambiguously-defined “equity” grants for (I guess) the employment of antisocial political activists. But I’m much more interested in the failure of what are meant to be our actual infrastructure allocations, because for all the bright spots above a single word comes up again, and again, and again: “modernization.” We are not researching, designing, and building. We are repairing, and refurbishing. This entire bill is proudly “green.” Old schools will be green, old housing projects will be green, old ports will be green! But they’ll still be old. Green is just another color, and these changes are mostly superficial — a trillion dollar paint job, with one stark exception.
Charging stations for electric vehicles account for a tiny fraction of expenditure and appear in almost every recap of the bill. Why such relentless focus from the media on so minor an element of our bold new infrastructure strategy? I think we’re all desperate for a sense of forward motion. The charging stations at least represent something new, a physical change that alters our world for the better. But beyond that, it’s not at all clear what our political leaders are trying to build.
I do however have a sense of what they’re trying to destroy.
Banning things is infrastructure. Ostensibly to offset spending, a few clever politicians wrote language into the infrastructure bill targeting crypto assets, with a promise to raise around $28 billion dollars. No one seems to understand where this number is coming from, or how it would meaningfully offset $1.2 trillion dollars in spending even were the number valid, but let’s focus on what we know for sure the language will accomplish: the end of American crypto development.
Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong provided one of the strongest early summaries on the Senate conflict, which I encourage you to read in full on Twitter. But the highlights include especially:
The charitable interpretation of the bill’s original language is it was crafted to mitigate tax avoidance. But that original language — "any person who (for consideration) is responsible for regularly providing any service effectuating transfers of digital assets on behalf of another person” — would force almost everyone who touches crypto, from miners and developers to people who design hardware wallets, to assume the role, and onerous filing burden, of “broker.” This would make almost everyone participating in the ecosystem responsible for people they don’t even know. Development would have to stop. But surely this language was just a mistake. Right?
A handful of Senators, including Toomey, Wyden, and Lummis, drafted an amendment to correct the error. Lummis summarized much of her and her colleagues’ commendable efforts here:
But what should have been an easy fix was met with tremendous pushback, and a competing amendment. Toomey recapped the debacle on Twitter:
The reason for the pushback is obvious. The intention of the infrastructure bill’s original crypto language was not to raise money, and it was never a mistake. Banning the development of crypto was the purpose.
With the bill’s passage in the Senate, the issue has been kicked to the House. In the end, the fate of an entire nascent industry simply wasn’t worth risking our essential new infrastructure plan, in which there will be no new infrastructure. This brings the tally of valuable new projects the bill is providing from just about nothing to literally less than zero.
Splitting the atom. In 1939, a group of scientists and engineers working for a secret, wartime government project developed the first nuclear bombs, ending the Second World War and launching the Atomic Age. The Manhattan Project employed 130,000 people, and cost the country $2 billion dollars, or something like $23 billion dollars adjusted for inflation today. That’s around 2 percent of Biden’s infrastructure bill, and the birth of a new scientific era. We just allocated almost twice that much to “modernize” public transit, with a focus on disability access. I’m glad we’re doing wheelchair ramps — truly, I am — but wheelchair ramps are not powering our cities.
In 1990, it cost our country less than $3 billion dollars to fund the Genome Project, map the human being’s DNA, and galvanize the field of genetic engineering. Don’t tell the Bluecheck Anti-moon Crew, but the United States spent $28 billion on the Apollo program between 1960 and 1973, or approximately $280 billion after inflation. In other words, for a fourth of the cost of this single bill, in this single year, we built an actual cosmic gateway. On the topic of roads, it’s worth noting we also used to build things here on earth. In 1992, Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System was finally complete. Adjusting for inflation, it cost us around $500 billion dollars over four decades. This is to say, for half the cost of Biden’s infrastructure bill, we constructed the entire U.S. circulatory system. In the first place, how is it costing us more to fix our roads than to build them? In the second, is anyone really confident our roads are getting fixed?
The nation’s Pacific coast is entering another period of dangerous drought, as our entire west drifts further into a period of escalating wildfire. We need land management, and really we need water. Where is our expenditure for desalination plants? The creation of fresh water is extremely energy intensive, which is in general the problem of problems for human civilization. Without a cheap, abundant, clean source of energy we can do nothing, and will eventually cease to exist. This brings us back to our new electric charging stations, which are great. But they won’t do much to mitigate America’s carbon footprint if they’re powered by coal. So why are we dismantling our nuclear power plants? We’re setting aside billions of dollars for research in no particular direction. Instead, we should be contracting new plant designs. We should be building new irrigation technologies, and can I please have an army of fire-fighting robots? I don’t ask for much.
Back east, the problem is also water, just in a markedly different direction. Flooding along the eastern seaboard is getting worse, with Florida in particular looking down the barrel of disaster. A few months ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed its first structural suggestion for solving the surge crisis in Miami. It’s a pretty simple idea: build a giant wall. The price-tag is $6 billion dollars, and nobody wants it because it will probably be ugly. In New York, there’s a far more significant seawall proposal for $119 billion dollars, which critics say can’t possibly stand on grounds that it will impact marine life, proving once again there is absolutely no link between managing climate change for humanity and fundamentalist environmentalism, which is dogmatically hostile to humanity as a concept. But are we sure aesthetics, or some pronounced love of whales, is really what’s holding us back? Or is this only what our infrastructure conversation has been reduced to because we no longer believe our country is capable of building great things? Emotionally, maybe excuses are easier than facing our decline. But important things can still be built.
Every now and then, over in the Netherlands, a massive flood kills thousands people and galvanizes a new generation of mitigation. For their massive system of pumps and dams and geographical reconstruction, the Dutch have managed to reduce their risk of catastrophic flooding from once every 100 years to once every 1250 years. Today, around the world, novel experimentation in seeding clouds hints at new possibility in climate control. Then, I know it’s always back to space with me, but it does beg repeating that over in the private sector SpaceX is currently landing rockets. Megaengineering projects that guard and reshape our coastline, desalination, nuclear power — we can bring our deserts to life, we can raise entire cities to the sky. It’s still possible to do great things. But we have to actually plan for them.
Would now be a good time to suggest an infrastructure bill?