U.S. aging infrastructure a national security concern

past for infrastructure advocates, said Flynn.

During the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former general explained to the American public that the country needed to build the interstate highway system, which he called the “National Defense Highway System,” to move resources quickly around the country and possibly evacuate cities if the cold war ever turned hot.

Fallows similarly argued that the only way to gain the American public’s attention is to evoke national security and emergency. “We have tremendous rebound capacity, but in terms of directing public attention, we seem to have only the military as a legitimate vehicle,” he said, adding “We seem to need an electric cattle prod of an emergency to do things and that’s a cause for worry.”

This is a tricky proposition, both Flynn and Fallows observed, noting the hysteria following the botched terrorist attack on Christmas Day. Politicians and government can not overreact, Flynn explains, because this is what the terrorists hope to achieve. “If we say that the unofficial doctrine of this country is we will overreact every time something goes wrong, you’re actually motivating our adversaries to say ‘Let’s keep trying,’” he said.

Because the United States is the world’s dominant military power, the only real way for enemies to attack the country is through its infrastructure, including cyberspace, making infrastructure resilience critical. “If [an attack] does happen, and very little of consequence happens, we get a national security benefit,” Flynn argued. “There’s a deterrent value to investing in this.”

If, on the other hand, adversaries can repeatedly attack a brittle critical infrastructure, Americans will lose faith in the everyday services and networks that are the source of U.S. prosperity and see them as weaknesses.

Fallows agreed, adding that the antiterrorism cure is usually worse than the disease. “To oversimplify this, it’s not the bombers that are destroying the U.S. aviation industry, it’s the TSA,” he said, using the Transportation Security Administration as symbolic of the U.S. government’s approach to antiterrorism.

Flynn also argued that proponents of building new critical infrastructure have to emphasize that it is an investment into the U.S. future and not a cost, while focusing in on its immediate and long-term benefits. Infrastructure spending would generate jobs, boost U.S. productivity and competitiveness, and improve the average citizen’s quality of life. “There’s really no down-side to making the investment,” he said. In the long term, the United States would be able to export its knowledge creating a hybrid infrastructure that’s efficient and environmentally sustainable to the rest of the world.

China, the U.S.’s main foreseeable rival in the future, understands this, said Fallows, who just returned to the United States after living in China for three years. Day by day China builds new highways, subways, and other modern infrastructures, he said.

Infrastructure investment, however, is expensive. The American Society of Civil Engineers in 2009 released a report card grading U.S. infrastructure. It is average grade: D. The organization advocates spending $2.2 trillion dollars over the next five years to repair U.S. infrastructure and get it into “good condition.”

Flynn says we have the wealth and civil engineering expertise to meet such investment needs, considering what the United States spends waging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while simultaneously rebuilding each society’s infrastructure. “Every single day since March 2003, [ the U.S. spends] on average $330 million dollars a day on supporting our military in Iraq and now in Afghanistan,” he said. “The total amount of investment we’ve spent on security related to the Port of Los Angeles since 9-11: $200 million.”