A recent Wall Street Journal editorial was titled, “What the U.S. Can Learn From China’s Infatuation with Infrastructure.” China’s stupendous feats of rapidly building out its infrastructure have spurred admiration and fascination. Has anyone watched those stop-motion YouTube videos of impressive Chinese bridges being erected in a few days? One expert in the WSJ piece spoke of “China envy” in other countries.
The reason we’re talking about Chinese top-down infrastructure accomplishments again, of course, is that the Biden administration has just proposed a humongous “infrastructure” bill. Its backers would surely like to be able to pass it unfettered by opposition from a possibly obstructive Senate. The problem is that the bill includes a whole raft of measures that aren’t really “infrastructure” at all, including $400 billion for the “caretaking economy,” such as measures for home health care workers, community colleges, and other matters. This has provoked a widespread debate about what is and is not infrastructure.
We understand why the administration is trying to package a bunch of unrelated policy initiatives under the “infrastructure” label. Americans across the political spectrum generally support more infrastructure investment when asked. A Pew Research Center poll in 2018 found that 88 percent of Americans said that they wanted increased spending on “roads, bridges and other infrastructure,” with more than a third of the country identifying it as a top priority.
One senator supporting the Biden plan tweeted, “Paid leave is infrastructure. Child care is infrastructure. Caregiving is infrastructure.” It’s not part of our mission to comment on measures not related to our industry or the infrastructure necessary to support it. We only note that not everything is infrastructure. When anything and everything can be defined as “infrastructure,” the focus shifts off actual infrastructure.
The Biden plan does include genuine infrastructure investments, including support for electrical grid improvements, rural broadband and, yes, $17 billion for ports and waterways, even if we believe waterways and ports should account for a larger proportion of the total bill. But the discussion of its merits is not helped by the inclusion of unrelated elements. As another prominent commentator tweeted in criticizing the “everything is infrastructure” approach, “When you drain a word of its meaning, you damage its impact, your cause and the value of language.”
It’s not wise to make urgently needed, genuine infrastructure priorities stand or fall alongside non-related measures that are not really infrastructure, especially when they are divisive.
Port and waterways infrastructure enjoys bipartisan support—when its advocates can cut through the noise and distractions of Washington. They have succeeded in doing that in recent years. When the infrastructure debate focuses on genuine infrastructure needs, we are confident that those needs—including port and waterways infrastructure needs—will receive bipartisan recognition and support.