Our Third-World Country

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February 6, 2016 8:04 AM

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It has come to this: the Mexican government has issued a statement to its citizens planning to travel in the United States, warning them to avoid drinking American tap water.

I think it was Eric Hoffer who said the measure of a civilization is not what it builds, but what it maintains. We look back at the Romans with considerable awe, not just because they built roads and aqueducts, but because they kept those elements of their infrastructure operational for such a long period of time.

America could take some pointers.

In the wake of Flint’s water crisis, there has been a renewed attention to the country’s scandalous neglect of our aging infrastructure. A recent article from the Brookings Institution points to the magnitude of the problem:

A combination of factors, of course, have contributed to Flint’s crisis—including lapses in state monitoring—but the aging and deteriorating condition of the city’s water infrastructure plays an enormous role.

Similar to many older industrial cities in the Midwest, Flint has struggled to pay for needed maintenance on pipes and other facilities, which not only buckle under time and pressure in the form of widespread leaks, but also result in higher costs and declining water quality. Typically out of sight and out of mind, many pipes are more than a century old and are expected to need $1 trillion in repairs nationally over the next 25 years alone. With more than 51,000 community water systems scattered across the country and the federal government responsible for under one-quarter of all public spending on water infrastructure, states and localities must coordinate and cover most of these costs.

Infrastructure isn’t sexy. But it is essential; when you cannot flush your toilet, when clean, safe drinking water doesn’t come out of your tap, the effects on the economy and the quality of life are immediate and dire.

One of the great missed opportunities of the past decade was Congressional refusal to address the Great Recession with a program to repair America’s infrastructure. As the President pointed out at the time, such an initiative would not only have put millions of people to work, the depressed interest rates would have allowed us to do the work at a considerable savings.

Evidently, opposing anything and everything Obama proposed was more important than safe water and bridges.

The rest of the world has noticed.

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