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Build It And They Will Come

One of the things I’ve learned in more than three decades of having one hand on a mouse and the other in the dirt is what building large, useful things does for the human spirit.
Building a city. image via Mitsubishi

Building a city. image via Mitsubishi

Over time we become partners with our adversaries, and usually in the worst way possible. They act, we react. Sometimes we take the lead and they react. While we may remain distinguishable in our actions, we eventually come to share low moral ground. And whenever we gain an upper hand with the memory of being crushed still fresh, the temptation to crush is virtually insurmountable.

That is the position we progressives find ourselves following a hard fought victory in the U.S. House of Representatives. Unlike any number of random innocuous nemeses better forgotten once wounded, Donald Trump has in every conceivable sense earned the vengeance headed his way served up cold, lukewarm, or boiling. Moreover, vanquishing the would-be-destroyer of over two centuries of constitutional tradition can easily be rationalized in terms of the public good. That very rationalization is what we must avoid at all costs.

The usual problem with suppressing vendetta urges is having to focus at length on the very thing that tempts you. Staring at a glass of Johnnie Walker Red is not an effective treatment for alcoholism. All sound programs—whether involving 12 steps or just one—beckon us to a higher state of mind and greater sense of purpose. The cynical may call this approach a crutch, but we human beings cannot attain excellence by pretending to be perfect.

Step one for those of us who really care about America should be to rebuild it physically. The usual code word for this initiative is infrastructure, which we will avoid entirely for the remainder of this essay and hopefully well beyond. The word by now is a horse beaten so badly it’s ready for the glue factory. Instead, we’ll use rebuilding, capital investment, transportation improvement—literally anything that suggests action rather than complacence.

As a civil/structural engineer with over 30 years of experience, I am not the most impartial evaluator of the proposition that we spend a couple trillion dollars to provide state-of-the-art rail and Wi-Fi to both inner cities and poor rural areas. But I am nearing retirement from phase two of my life and not looking to make another buck. One of the things I’ve learned in more than three decades of having one hand on a mouse and the other in the dirt is what building large, useful things does for the human spirit.

People on constructions sites and in field offices tend to be team players. Lines on blueprints and formwork awaiting concrete know no political affiliation. Seeing a modest end product—a school building, an exit ramp, a culvert—is an incentive above and beyond the living wage-plus. When the end product is somewhat daunting—like high-speed rail transforming Martinsburg, West Virginia into a suburb of Washington, D.C.—the incentive is a life defining experience landing every participant on the arc of the nation’s history. It is the spoils of war without the destruction or casualties.

It may come as a shock to Jeff Bezos, but spending your life stuffing boxes for $15 an hour is a path to neither financial independence nor spiritual fulfillment. He wouldn’t want that life for his children. Nor would Donald Trump for his grandchildren. The American version of Foxconn is acceptable only for other people’s children. Sure, it beats starvation or food stamps by a long shot, but we now have a two-party system patting itself on the back for promoting survival conditions.

The median personal income in the United States is about $31 thousand annually. Though it varies according to region, that is subsistence in practical terms. At that income level, whatever mental and physical energy one may have left over gets funneled into the endless life-draining endeavor of stretching a buck. There is no lasting economic success—only living to see another day. There is absolutely no chance of accumulating equity, so that the American Dream becomes a gerbil wheel. Another metaphor is a climbing rope, slightly greased. One may, through furious short-lived propelling, ascend 10 or 15 feet, but a moment’s loose grip spells a quick descent.

The two-earner subsistence household appears to relieve some of the economic stress, but the ultimate reality is that children spend their young lives missing two often physically absent, emotionally depleted parents instead of one. The “family values” crowd perpetually offering conventional marriage as a panacea might as well advocate a three-earner ménage à trios household. Barbara Ehrenreich has written brilliantly about this American dead end, but reading books on the topic is strictly optional. Instead, just do the math.

At $25, $30, or $35 an hour, however, the economic landscape begins to change. Purchasing a modest house—including a real down payment—becomes viable in most regions of the country. A monthly surplus not only builds single and family equity but provides employees with the psychological boon of swimming downstream instead of treading water indefinitely.

But at that wage level and beyond, something else begins to take shape as well. To read Fortune magazine or listen to a college advisor, one might think the future is entirely in technology. This is a harmful misconception at best and a destructive lie at worst. Shocking as it may sound, just as not everyone was born to stuff cartons with Ray-Bans, not everyone was born to code in C++.

The truth is, for thousands of years, God or whoever is in the business of synthesizing human DNA has been producing hordes of talented potential artisans not suited for interminable cubicle life. For most of these millennia we have utilized that broad mass of individuals in part to erect our bridges and build our roads. About 45 years ago we began ratcheting down this process, and the results include millions of broken homes and millions of addictions to painkillers. It’s not primarily physical pain these substances are medicating. It’s the pain of living without dignity. It’s the pain of not being needed. It’s the pain of being invisible.

To the left of center we have a terrible time grappling with the fact that this is mostly—though certainly not entirely—a male problem. While there are and will continue to be thousands of talented women plumbers, electricians, and construction managers, let’s acknowledge that for millions of American males currently operating tape dispensers for a living, driving a Bobcat mini excavator would represent a new lease on life.

Most of these men, stuck in the 21 century with 20 century ambitions, supported Donald Trump in 2016, not because of deep political leanings but because Trump was effectively a third-party candidate in a two-party system that had left them and their friends for dead. Ironically it is now Democrats who have the chance to deliver a decent life to the very people who two years earlier threw them out of office on their asses.

In delivering the goods, the political risk is that the plan will work and Trump will take all the credit. That is the very risk Democrats must take. Don’t worry—they can still issue subpoenas, call witnesses, and seize financial records. But empowering the populace must once again become the primary duty of governance.

Currently the United States spends 2.3 percent of its GDP on large capital projects for public use, a paltry sum compared to the rest of the developed world. A bit of financial courage and a ton of political courage will pay off in both financial and political gain. But like real world construction itself, that payback period is long and meandering. In an era of cutthroat politics spearheaded by a faithless president, actually taking care of the people’s business represents the ultimate act of faith. Nothing less will make America great again.