Civil Engineering, Yes; Social Engineering, No

The Infrastructure and Energy Policies America Really Needs

Infrastructure investment and climate change are both issues the United States needs to address. First, in the service of economic growth and higher quality of life, the nation needs a rational and proportionate program of investment in infrastructure. Meanwhile, in the face of anthropogenic climate change, it needs a rational and proportionate program for mitigation and adaptation. To meet both, progressives have put forward elaborate infrastructure and climate change proposals. But these have been neither rational nor proportionate. Indeed, what purport to be up-to-date, science-based public policies turn out on inspection to be driven by the century-old ideology of neoliberal progressive technocracy.

Progressive technocracy is a version of collectivism that is reformist and elitist, as opposed to revolutionary and egalitarian like Marxism. Its utopia is a planned society administered by social scientists and technical experts. In it, social engineers, insulated from democratic accountability and wielding vast authority, are empowered to devise long-range plans to promote social and environmental goals, which are handed over to deferential elected officials to implement with few changes—against the opposition of the ignorant masses if necessary.

Technocratic progressivism is not new; after all, Wilsonian progressivism favored institutions like the civil service and city-manager government to insulate government decision-making from voters and elected representatives. Likewise, Fabian socialism in the United Kingdom promoted government by experts. But for a century, technocratic progressivism remained an elite minority persuasion. The left-technocrats, sometimes called “planners,” had to share the center-left political space with other groups—organized labor, socialists, mutualists, left-libertarians—more suspicious of top-down social engineering.

In the last generation, however, technocratic progressives have achieved near-hegemony on the center-left in the United States and other Western democracies. Some reasons for their ascendance include the collapse of trade union power, the discrediting of state socialism, and the illiberal turn within the left against left-libertarianism. Egging them on has been the infusion of donations to technocratic progressive nonprofits and university programs from Silicon Valley and Wall Street moguls who find technocracy the most congenial version of liberalism.

With the rise of this group of progressives has come a new zeal for planning. While Marx refused to speculate about the details of a future socialist society, utopians on the left, from Fourier with his communal phalansteries to the New Urbanists of the 1990s, have always been willing to provide intricate plans for urban zoning, transportation, energy use, diet, and even dress. Progressive technocrats, too, come with blueprints for ideal neighborhoods, ideal transit systems, ideal landscape uses, and, more recently, ideal energy systems. Plans turn seemingly technical disputes into emotional debates fraught with consequence—in urban planning, for example, rectilinear street grids and front porches are said to build community, while cul-de-sacs and private backyards are alleged to be antisocial.

The progressive planners have often disagreed with each other, but they share a dislike of choice. They demonize “sprawl”—really, any urban development that sprang up without centralized planning. They detest personal automobiles, which give the working class the ability to wander away from the pedestrian, bicycle, and mass transit grids college-educated planners built for them to follow. Collectivists by temperament, progressive planners generally prefer dense, low-rise apartment blocks to single-family homes. For energy, they converged on what writer and scientist Amory Lovins called the “soft path” of reliance on decentralized wind and solar power, as opposed to the “hard path” of centralized energy utilities using fossil fuels or nuclear energy. It all meshed very nicely: happy pedestrians and bikers visit organic farmers’ markets in dense urban villages crisscrossed by trolleys, while a high-speed passenger train zooms past clean white windmills in the distance. Wise technocrats keep the show going from their control rooms offstage.

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Enter the Planners

There’s a reason this progressive technocratic vision, which has been roughly the same for decades, has not come to pass. Most Americans like their single-family homes, their cars and shopping malls and big-box stores. They do not want to live in modern simulacra of the town squares and tenement neighborhoods of the 1900s.

As long as progressive technocrats were mostly marginalized in center-left politics, they didn’t have to worry much. But along with the declining influence of private-sector trade unions and social democracy and civil libertarians on the Democratic Party, rising concern about global warming in the last three decades has given progressive technocrats an opportunity to move from the political sidelines to the center. Because of the “climate emergency,” the various causes of twentieth-century progressive planners—high-density housing, replacement of automobiles by mass transit, renewable energy—are no longer matters of personal taste. Now these generations-old top-down social engineering schemes are necessary to save the planet. If these plans are not immediately adopted into a war-like mobilization, progressive technocrats claim, civilization will collapse, and hundreds of millions or billions of people—perhaps humanity as a whole—will die.

This new synthesis, lashing various older technocratic social engineering projects together with alarm about a climate apocalypse, was popularized by the author Naomi Klein in books like This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate and On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, which called for massive government investment and intervention to mitigate climate change. Critics countered that Klein and others were using the idea of the Green New Deal as a Trojan horse into which a variety of unrelated left-wing projects could be crammed. And they seem correct; in On Fire, Klein declared that “climate disruption demands a reckoning on the terrain most repellent to conservative minds: wealth redistribution, resource sharing, and reparations.”

However, with the Green New Deal, the progressive technocrats, mostly within the pro-business neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party, have dropped eco-socialism for eco-capitalism. Instead of fighting anthropogenic global warming by abolishing capitalism—as eco-socialists might prefer—green neoliberals rely heavily on tax breaks, renewable portfolio mandates, and other subsidies to reward investors in politically favored solar and wind farms or affluent purchasers of low-carbon luxury consumption items like Priuses and Teslas.

Inasmuch as the United States in 2019 was responsible for only 11 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Rhodium Group, even the complete success of the Green New Deal at the national level would hardly “save the planet.” But perhaps the intention was always more self-serving. Adopting a watered-down version of the Green New Deal allowed neoliberal Democrats to sidle away from their earlier role as cheerleaders for free market globalization and rebrand themselves as saviors of the planet. The neoliberals of the 1990s and 2000s promised a globalization-induced renaissance in American manufacturing for export. They predicted an expansion of “knowledge economy jobs” that would replace well-paid manufacturing jobs. None of that ever took place. Instead, mercantilist China has caused American producers to lose global and domestic market share in one industry after another. Meanwhile, high-wage jobs for programmers—“Learn to code!”—have been greatly outnumbered in the United States by low-wage jobs in health care, retail and leisure, and hospitality.

Unlike global competition for sales in foreign markets, which is difficult and risky, state-sponsored green capitalism can offer neoliberal investors guaranteed returns. For example, the government may impose renewable energy portfolio mandates to force utilities to buy expensive and unreliable solar and wind energy from privately owned producers. In this way, public utilities can print money for passive “green investors,” while passing the costs along to the working-class majority in the form of higher energy bills.

Some cash may go toward paying construction workers to install solar panels, windmills, and the like, but most of the technologies will still be imported from Chinese factories because the United States, after a generation of corporate offshoring to lower labor costs, cannot manufacture them at scale anymore. It is thus no coincidence that American supporters of the Green New Deal tend also to be dovish toward China in matters of trade, arguing that the coming climate crisis gives the United States no time to rebuild its own capacity to manufacture equipment needed for renewable energy installations. “Biden’s Tough Stance on China Will Lead to Global Climate Doom” is the headline of a March 2021 essay by Michael Klare, The Nation’s defense correspondent and professor emeritus of peace and world-security studies at Hampshire College. The subtitle? “To tackle the climate crisis, Biden should build an alliance with China aimed at collective survival.”

The Biden administration’s original $3.5 trillion “infrastructure” budget represented the ultimate culmination of the technocratic tendency toward top-down, centralized, comprehensive planning. It sought to bundle hundreds of priorities together in one big green package. Thanks to the resistance of moderate Democrats, traditional infrastructure elements like highway maintenance and repair of water systems were easily pulled out of the omnibus bill by the bipartisan coalition that insisted on a stand-alone vote for a $1.2 trillion package that has been enacted. What remains in the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better bill, is spending on various unrelated, long-time center-left goals like urban densification and public day care, plus spending on a vast network of new high-voltage power lines and electric automobile-charging stations—policies that make sense only on the implausible premise that wind farms and solar energy farms will replace most fossil fuels and nuclear power in a few decades at most.

Energy First

The criticisms of the Green New Deal are clear. But something can’t be defeated with nothing.

A thoughtful alternative to the Green New Deal would separate infrastructure and energy policy—and answer the energy question first. After all, an energy economy dominated by solar and wind would indeed require massive investments in high-voltage power grids to carry electricity from wind and solar plants in less-populated areas to cities. As nuclear power advocates Madison Czerwinski and Emmet Penney point out in a recent article for Real Clear Energy, under Biden, the Department of Energy (DOE) has put out a plan calling for the “U.S. to quadruple its annual solar installations to reach 1,000 gigawatts of capacity by 2035—40% more than the total amount of solar worldwide as of 2020. To accommodate the expansion of solar and wind, the [DOE’s new Solar Futures] study finds that transmission will need to expand by at least 33% over the same time period and up to 90% by 2050.”

Yet if the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions is promoted by replacing coal with lower-carbon natural gas or zero-carbon nuclear energy, the existing US electric grid, modernized and expanded as the population grows, is adequate. Natural gas and nuclear fuel can be stored on the sites of existing electric utilities. There might be room for a few more natural gas pipelines, but there is no need for an expensive new interstate high-voltage grid system. Nor is there a need for sprawling, land-consuming wind farms and solar installations that would require countless farms, ranches, and homes to be sacrificed to eminent domain. (To generate the same amount of electricity as nuclear power, weather-dependent renewables require 400-450 times the land area.)

Even if global warming really were a dire emergency, rather than a manageable chronic nuisance, then it would make sense for the federal government to borrow money at historically low interest rates to pay for mass construction of standardized nuclear power plants for existing public and private electric utilities. The irrational dread of nuclear energy among environmental activists and the American public makes a green transition based on nuclear power politically unlikely, but this is all to show that the question of energy should be answered prior to the question of infrastructure.

On that score, given our inability to foresee future technological breakthroughs, a technology-neutral approach to greenhouse gas mitigation is the second-best course to a state-capitalist nuclear build-out. A moderate carbon tax could create an incentive to phase out the burning of coal in electricity generation, without discriminating against further development of natural gas, nuclear power, or other sources. So could national clean energy portfolio standards for public utilities that include nuclear power as a kind of low-carbon or no-carbon energy. Any tax breaks for the generation or use of clean energy should include nuclear power.

Great Power, Great Infrastructure

When the issue of energy sources is addressed separately, as it should be, the question of what kind of national infrastructure investment the United States needs remains to be answered. The answer? It depends. For any country, it depends on that particular nation’s role in the world economy. A country that exports commodities to foreign refiners and manufacturers needs rail lines, canals, pipelines, and highways to transport crops, lumber, livestock, ores, or oil and gas from their sources to inland and maritime ports. A country that exports manufactured goods to foreign markets needs a different infrastructure supporting its networks of factories and suppliers. And a country that manufactures little but is a global financial entrepôt with an economy dominated by banking, insurance, and professional services requires yet a third approach.

The imperatives of national security influence national infrastructure choices as well. Unlike weak countries that depend on others for protection, great powers must possess strategic industries that can be used for military as well as civilian production, along with the skilled workforces and infrastructure systems those actual or potential military industries require.

If the United States is to maintain its status as one of several great powers in the face of military and economic challenges from China and in time perhaps other rising powers, American economic policy should be based on what economist Robert D. Atkinson and I have called “national developmentalism.” Political scientists first used the term “developmental state” for polities like post-1945 Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, whose governments’ industrial policies helped local manufacturers catch up with their rivals in the more developed West.

But the developmental state is familiar in Western fora as well, including eighteenth-century mercantilist Britain and France and nineteenth-century Prussia-Germany. There have always been elements of national developmentalism in the United States, such as the plans of Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay to use tariffs and subsidies to foster infant industries, as well as the role of the federal government in developing modern radio and television, aviation, nuclear energy, computers, and the Internet.

National developmentalists in Walpole’s Britain, Bismarck’s Germany, and the America of Hamilton, Lincoln, and the Roosevelts have agreed about the centrality of technology-based manufacturing as the foundation for relative global military power and economic influence. The importance of manufacturing does not lie in its provision of “good jobs,” as has become a rallying cry today. After all, even at the height of employment in manufacturing in the mid-twentieth century, most workers did not work on assembly lines. And manufacturing jobs are valuable to the national economy even when they have been poorly paid and exploitative. Apart from its contribution to the nation’s military-industrial capacity, manufacturing is important to the national economy as a whole because of its disproportionate contribution to both private and public R&D and technological innovation, in the never-ending race among rival countries to stay at the leading edge of the technological frontier.

Manufacturing industries tend to be characterized by increasing returns to scale, meaning that efficiency increases as markets and sales grow. Ambitious manufacturing nations therefore want their manufacturing firms, be they private or public or mixed, both to dominate their home markets and to capture high shares of targeted global markets. In the past, colonial empires would conquer other countries and force their inhabitants to buy the high-value-added manufactured goods of the metropolitan power, at the expense of native manufacturing. And while the discrediting of territorial imperialism after World War I has changed the rules for global competition among great powers for third-country markets and resources, the strategic imperatives remain the same.

From all of this follows the conclusion that if the United States (or a United States–led bloc) seeks to maximize its capacity in strategic manufacturing industries, it must try to maximize the global market share of its national producers, in an era in which almost all of the growth in consumer demand will be outside the borders of the United States and its allies. In turn, a strategic plan for US infrastructure would have less to say about mass transit for urban commuters and would be far more focused on foreign demand for United States-made goods and services.

A comprehensive American national infrastructure policy might start overseas with the ports and interior transportation systems in India and Africa, where the growth of consumer demand will follow the massive growth of local populations in the decades ahead. In the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, foreign investors put funds into railroads and other kinds of infrastructure to extract the resources of undeveloped economies. In the last generation, global firms have invested in manufacturing facilities in China, Mexico, and other countries to exploit cheap labor. Resources and labor costs will continue to matter. But the major consumer markets for advanced industrial nations are found in other advanced industrial nations, now limited mostly to Europe, North America, and East Asia. In the long run, rising incomes and increasing consumption among billions of people yet to be born in Africa and South Asia have the potential to create enormous new markets for exports of both finished manufactured goods and manufactured inputs made in America.

China’s leaders understand this dynamic. China’s Belt and Road Initiative of commercial and transportation infrastructure investment in countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe complements its industrial policy, which seeks to create national champions in its home market while enlarging the foreign market shares of Chinese manufacturers. The United States needs its own version of a belt and road strategy, enabled by US unilateral development finance institutions, like a greatly expanded US Export-Import Bank, as well as far greater contributions to regional development banks controlled by the United States and its military allies.

A Big Green Bow

Now let us retrace the paths of United States-manufactured exports from maritime and inland ports abroad, where they had arrived on their way to foreign producers or consumers, all the way back to the US ports from which they departed. Most global commerce moves by ship on the high seas and inland waterways. Deploying advanced technology including robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine-to-machine communications to modernize US seaports and the US inland waterway system to make the process of shipping as efficient and low-cost as possible should be a national priority.

Retracing the paths of United States-manufactured exports further back, we find that high-tech rail, highway, and air transportation systems within the country are essential to carry goods from factories to ports and transport foreign raw materials and manufactured inputs from ports to factories. The greatest concentration of factories in North America is and will remain in what Joel Kotkin and I have dubbed “the New American Heartland”—the manufacturing cluster that runs from Canada and the Great Lakes down the Mississippi River valley to the Gulf of Mexico, with branches into Florida, Texas, and Mexico.

Most US factories will be located in low-density areas on the outskirts of metropolitan regions. The urban periphery is also where most Americans in the future will live, regardless of their jobs, given that most residential and commercial growth has for decades taken place in the suburbs and exurbs, with no sign of a reversal (and with a possible acceleration post-COVID-19).

In the areas of transportation and logistics, the plans of progressives are most at odds with what the US economy and workforce need. Progressive planners who denounce cars and automobile-dependent sprawl are wrong. Personal cars are good. The decentralization of industry and population to lower real estate costs and improve the quality of life of citizens is good. Highways allow Americans, particularly working-class Americans, access via their personal cars to a wide variety of possible homes at affordable prices at some distance from their jobs. Personal car use also allows workers to access a far greater number of jobs within reasonable commuting times than does reliance on walking, bicycling, or mass transit. According to the Brookings Institution, in 2011 only 22 percent of potential jobs for low-income workers in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas were accessible to them via mass transit each way in less than an hour and a half. Working-class car ownership or rental combined with convenient road infrastructure opens up working-class job opportunities.

In most places, light rail is an expensive anachronism. The main commuter infrastructure needed in twenty-first-century America consists of new ring roads or “beltways” that allow commuters and freight trucks to bypass congested downtowns. Most travel for work, shopping, and commerce already takes place within urban peripheries. Suburb-to-suburb ring roads benefit exurban manufacturing by providing multiple flexible routes for trucking that can minimize congestion-caused delays. Ring roads that permit rapid car or bus travel within a broad metro area benefit both the minority of workers employed in manufacturing and the majority of workers employed in domestic service sectors. One of the service sectors with growing employment is health care, an industry that, like new manufacturing, is also likely to be suburban and exurban, because it is cheaper to build new hospitals and medical facilities on low-cost land outside of downtown centers.

Robotic port facilities and caravans of self-driving trucks and cars whizzing safely at high speeds down new exurban ring roads past single-family-home residential neighborhoods are unlikely to capture the imagination of the urban intelligentsia the way that depictions of pedestrian villages linked by monorails have. High-rise downtown neighborhoods in hub cities will continue to be sites where affluent corporate and nonprofit managers work and live and play and show off, with the help of retinues of menial service workers. But the decentralization of industrial production and service sector employment that began with the first light-rail systems in the 1800s and accelerated with the introduction of cars and trucks and electrical grids in the twentieth century will not be reversed.

There is nothing wrong with having a national industrial strategy; on the contrary, it is essential if the US seeks to remain a great military and manufacturing power. And, of course, we want our bridges designed by expert engineers, not amateur hobbyists or elected city council members. In all of these areas, reliance on the judgment of trained and experienced experts is essential. The error of technocratic progressivism arises from the illegitimate transfer of an engineering mentality that is appropriate in matters of infrastructure investment and technology promotion into the realm of social reform, where calls to defer to the authority of expert planners can threaten individual freedom and representative democracy.

The United States should develop both a climate change mitigation strategy and an infrastructure strategy geared to economic growth—but the two strategies do not need to be wrapped together with each other and miscellaneous unrelated items by a big green ribbon. America needs a technology-neutral national climate change mitigation strategy that does not discriminate against the most promising source of zero-carbon energy—nuclear power. America also needs a national infrastructure strategy that prioritizes manufacturing for export, while enabling low-cost living and commuting for the post-urban working-class majority in decentralized metro areas and regions. What America does not need is top-down progressive social engineering disguised as civil engineering.