I know this is going to sound weird in light of Wednesday’s post on how the entirety of the American experiment has been about transforming land into capital, but the 2017 Infrastructure Report, in which the fruits of that experiment are shown again to be falling apart, is just as depressing. If you’re going to transform a continent with epochal repercussions, at least do it right.
The report, in which we got an overall D+, is filled with depressing little nuggets of sadutainment. Dams, obviously, got a D. Drinking water got a D. Levees got a D, which means no place to stay. Rails, bless them, received a B.
Most striking, maybe, or at least in its own way most telling, is that Inland Waterways also got a D. As the report says:
The United States’ 25,000 miles of inland waterways and 239 locks form the freight network’s “water highway.” This intricate system, operated and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, supports more than half a million jobs and delivers more than 600 million tons of cargo each year, about 14% of all domestic freight. Most locks and dams on the system are well beyond their 50-year design life, and nearly half of vessels experience delays. Investment in the waterways system has increased in recent years, but upgrades on the system still take decades to complete.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that inland waterways built this country, or, at least, this country was built around inland waterways. As Peter Bernstein detailed in Wedding of the Waters, Washington knew that the fledgling nation needed a way to connect the eastern ports and cities with the settlers beyond the Cumberland Gap. This was when the country was still unformed, and the British and French held land on the continent, and there was no real reason for settlers to identify with America.
Washington wanted a canal that ran through Virginia, near Mt. Vernon (which was known back then as “our own old-timey Mar-A-Lago”), but the difficulties were insurmountable. Through the indefatigable workings of DeWitt Clinton, many-times governor of New York, the Erie Canal was built, linking the Great Lakes to the oceans via the Hudson, and unifying the nation.
It was a hell of a project, requiring monumental dams and incredible feats of engineering. The later Welland Canal surpassed even the Erie, and of course the St. Lawrence Seaway outdid them all. They weren’t the only canals, though, of course. Inland ports dotted the lakes and rivers of the new west, none more prominent than the ones in Chicago, that connected the small Chicago River to the slightly bigger Des Plaines, and thence to the Illinois, and the Mississippi. More canals were dug in the region, reversing the flow of the Chicago, and helping to open up the Lakes to the Gulf.
(There have been some very negative consequences of opening up the Lakes to the ocean, as Dan Egan details in his new book The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. We’ll have a review coming next week.)
But the canals are too narrow, and the locks are rusty and old, and the inland waterway infrastructure is decaying. Infrastructure has long been a huge problem. Democrats can’t get Republicans to spend any money on it, because that is wasteful. Republicans promise to do so, but then, as Trump is doing, “punt” it in favor of tax cuts. It’s an argument, but it is more than that.
This isn’t just politics. This is fundamental. We let our roads and bridges crumble like some kind of metaphor, because we are, ultimately, ungovernable. We’re too big, and too unruly, and too atomized, to be governed correctly. We muddle through, but for all the hegemony of CVS and Applebees in every corner, for every same-seeming strip mall of auto part joints and check cashing places in every concrete roadway of the nation, there is no real unifier. Maybe there can’t be: maybe the anonymity of modernity and the retreat of the digital age combined in a swirl of late-stage capitalism that only guarantees isolation and addiction. Maybe, really, we’re just too big, and the idea of a huge continental nation is absurd.
That would be a pretty bitter irony, there. We carved out this continent, transformed nature, and exterminated nations wholesale in order to fulfill a manifest destiny. And, barely 100 years after reaching that shore and taming the natives, the very scope of the conquest is also our undoing. We size the perils of giganticism and empire in Russia, which is falling apart, eroding its eastern possessions to China while being unable to maintain internal coherence beyond Putinism. Is it a surprise that it is happening here, too?