The American Military & Infrastructure
A conversation about the American military's approach to infrastructure with Robert D. Kaplan, author of Imperial Grunts, The Coming Anarchy, and Balkan Ghosts. Kaplan, who is writing a series of books about the American military, spent the last few years embedded with Army Special Forces and Marines in countries ranging from Colombia to Mongolia to Iraq.
A Panel on Infrastructure
That’s Capital’s examination of the importance of Infrastructure on individual choices, social development, and cultural organization continues with a panel of varied scholars and experts:
Amy Friedlander – Senior Program Manager at Shinkuro, a software company that builds collaboration tools and also engages in a range of community development activities. She also helped to fund D-Lib, an early online journal devoted to digital library resources.
Ron Hira – Assistant Professor of Public Policy at Rochester Institute of Technology and author of Outsourcing America: What's Behind Our National Crisis And How We Can Reclaim American Jobs with Anil Hira.
Leonard Nevarez – Assistant Professor of Sociology at Vassar College, who studies the role of high-technology and the symbolic economy in urban development, environmental/quality-of-life politics, and natural resource extraction industries; you can read a distillation of this work in his book New Money, Nice Town; How Capital Works in the New Urban Economy.
Gavin Wright - William Robertson Coe Professor of American Economic History at Stanford University who researches the historical origins of U.S. economic performance, slavery, and the American South and is the author of numerous books such as The Political Economy of the Cotton South: Households, Markets, and Wealth in the Nineteenth Century and Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy Since the Civil War.
Titus Levi – Moderator and Managing Producer of That’s Capital.
Jonathan and I first started thinking about this area last year. It was inspired by listening to Marion Asnes’ talk with Mark Taylor and Atti Riazi about evolving forms of money. That was our first show for That's Capital. One of the things that came up within that conversation was the importance of trust. Exploring trust brought us to thinking about the always-present but not-frequently-discussed elements that embue trust in everyday things like banks that will accept our money. That led us to think of other every day parts of our economy on which we depend without ever questioning: faucets that deliver water, post office boxes where we can drop our mail and know it will be delivered, or even authority figures like the police who exist to enforce basic laws.
Bouncing questions back and forth to each other about trust, and what lies behind and underneath our day-to-day spending and work choices, the concept of "infrastructure" struck us as key to most practical economic and cultural decision making. That led to wanting That's Capital to devote a show or two to exploring how infrastructures come into existence, are maintained, and evolved.
While we were in the process of developing a list of possible guests, Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans. Suddenly infrastructure went from something the Planning Board takes care of while the rest of us ignore it to become the subject of front-page headlines. The lack of consideration of infrastructure, both in terms of the social connections between New Orleans City Hall, Washington DC legislators, and people living in the Ninth Ward, as well as in terms of the development and maintenance of everything from levees, water pumps, and water systems, suddenly took on a life-or-death significance.
While the expansion of the role of infrastructure is a welcome relief, we still believed that we had a role to play in delving deeper into the subject. To see how the infrastructure we have in various parts of the world has come into existence, and to see what’s working, and why.
When Jonathan heard the writer Robert D. Kaplan speak about the American military's ability to create post-disaster infrastructure, we invited him to speak with That's Capital about that subject. Simultaneously, we decided to do a panel with a range of scholars who could look broadly at the idea of infrastructure. These included an economic historian, a public policy scholar, a sociologist, and applications-oriented specialist. While these persons do not work on infrastructure per se, they do work in all sorts of areas where infrastructure plays a crucial role in the ways that visible and not-so-visible hands shape our lives.
Starting from the simple notion that policy and infrastructural development depends on certain social forces and conditions being in place, and that these interact with economic and political forces to produce the outcomes we see, we laid out a few questions.
1: What social conditions need to arise in order to get sufficient buy-in from a community or polity so that investing in infrastructural development can move forward?
2: It seems that infrastructure has been difficult to maintain and develop in the US in the last 20 years because of social fragmentation. Is this an accurate assessment of current trends? If so, what are the implications of this? If not, what is the correct story?
3: What social and economic conditions fell into place to produce the large scale infrastructure projects that we still use? (Interstates, the Internet, Schools, National Electrification) What needs to happen to reinvigorate this kind of social investment?
4: Infrastructure has often been thought of as roads, pipes, and such. But a key aspect of infrastructure in the 21st Century is developing informational and educational systems. What projects have been effective in this regard? What hasn’t? What do we need to do in order to be more effective while avoiding the pitfalls?
5: What kind of living environments will a successful development of infrastructure (as l largely defined here) look like? Are there examples out there that look like this? Are there places that are moving in this direction?
Starting from this basis, I had the good fortune to moderate a wide-ranging and rich conversation with a few people listed below. A few of the key insights that you’ll hear in that conversation:
1: There is a real and important tension between local interests and national policymaking.
2: For infrastructure to be valuable, it must be easy to use and trustworthy.
3: The social, political, and economic focus that drove infrastructural development in the United States has changed without any clear sense of what will replace it, if anything.
Listen for yourself. Draw your own conclusions. And then join the conversation. You can comment by clicking the “comments” line right below the program headline on our Homepage. And while you’re here, be sure to check out our conversation with Robert Kaplan, author of Imperial Grunts, to gain a better understanding of the expanding role that the American military is playing in delivery infrastructure and compensating for gaps or damage to it.
We have other pieces on infrastructure in the works that touch on the importance of transportation systems, the continuing debate about how to rebuild New Orleans, and a more thoroughgoing treatment of the importance of trust in developing useful infrastructure. If you want to join any of these conversations or have ideas for questions related to infrastructure, please get in touch.