Friday, January 25, 2013

Debating Infrastructure

I wrote recently about the possibility that the U.S. has overbuilt infrastructure and that the resulting inability to fund infrastructure maintenance is undermining the economy.  Therefore, I was intrigued to receive an invitation to watch a high school debate about U.S. infrastructure policy.  However, I found that high school debate is different than I might have expected.

Luckily, I later had a chance to communicate about infrastructure with a city councilmember.  The exchange was more my speed, both figuratively and literally.

The topic for the 2012-2013 national high school debate season is “Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its transportation infrastructure investment in the United States.”  I was looking forward to hearing what high school students thought on the subject and whether they had been seduced into the infrastructure cult.

I still don’t have an answer to that question.  The initial arguments were presented so quickly that I was unable to follow the content.  The instructor had advised me about the speed talking used for the introductory salvos, but I still thought I was at a cattle auction.  During a break, the instructor described one debater as “perhaps the fastest high school debater in the country.”  Which I guess is a good thing, but it didn’t help my comprehension at all.

The arguments and counterarguments traded after the initial speech were presented at a more moderate pace and I was generally able to follow them.  Although I found the arguments tangential to what I had expected, often devolving into meta-debates about the rules of debate, such as whether conditional negative arguments are permissible.  I probably didn’t explain that correctly, but it was the best I could understand it.

A fresh-faced seventeen-year-old tried to explain the nuances of the debate to me during breaks.  I appreciated her efforts.  She truly was kind about it.  But she might as well have been instructing me in the social rituals of an aboriginal tribe.  A fast-talking aboriginal tribe.

To illustrate my point, the affirmative side talked of investing in a tunnel across the Bering Straits, linking the U.S. and Russia.  Ah-hah, I could grasp that one.  A Bering Straits tunnel would be the largest, most technically complex, and more expensive infrastructure project of all time.  And yet all it would accomplish would be the delivery of goods to the far eastern end of Siberia, an impossibly long distance from any sizable markets.  By any definition of “investment”, the tunnel would fail.

But instead the debate took on questions like whether the U.S. retained a residual animosity toward Russia from the Cold War, whether the tunnel would break down international borders, and whether a world without borders would be a good thing.  My arguments weren’t even on the table.  At least, I don’t think they were.  Everyone was talking too quickly for me to be sure.

If this sounds like I mocking debate, I’m not.  Any more than I would mock high school basketball.  Hitting a 12-foot jumper at the buzzer may not be a skill that helps in later life, but learning to practice hard and to be part of a team is a good life skill.  Similarly, speaking quickly may not help in a job interview.  But learning to assimilate arguments quickly and to respond comprehensively and effectively is a good life skill.  Probably better than those learned on the basketball court.

Had there been a debate club at my high school, I would have done well to participate.  The skills would have been effective in my career and in writing this blog.

Luckily, another exchange gave an opportunity to use my lesser skills of persuasion.  A city councilmember, writing in response to my invitation to the February 12 StrongTowns presentation, asked “Give me an example of how one might address supposedly excess infrastructure.”  My response included the following points.

The emerging reality that Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns postulates is difficult to put one's arms around.  Marohn tried to tackle the question in a post he wrote in October 2011.  He suggests that suburban neighborhoods beyond the limit of economically sustainable infrastructure will have four possible outcomes:

Lower Entropy: More of life would be lived in a neighborhood, with trips to town becoming special events.

Neighborhood Repair: Neighborhoods would evolve to a more sustainable configuration, perhaps by the addition of more residents and economic activity, increasing tax revenues for infrastructure maintenance.

Abandonment: Some houses and even entire neighborhoods would be left vacant.  Marohn argues that we’ve already seen this in the inner cities of the 1940s and 1950s.

Salvage:  Some homes would be demolished for the value of their materials.

The complete StrongTowns blog post is here.

Admittedly, Marohn is talking about Minnesota, which has a different reality than California.  So I’ll offer a local possibility.  Perhaps Sonoma County decides that it can no longer maintain River Road between Santa Rosa and Guerneville.  Between the damages from increased Russian River flooding and limited funds, Public Works can't keep the road repaired.  Instead, the County keeps the road from Healdsburg toward Guerneville open, but with a lower design speed because of poor pavement condition.

In that world, no one could live in Guerneville and work in Santa Rosa. The daily commute would be too dificult.  Many of the homes in Guerneville would survive, especially those above the new flood plain.  But the homes would become weekend hideaways for people willing to spend two hours driving from Santa Rosa to Guerneville by way of Healdsburg while using $10 per gallon gas.

This example is only a possibility, but it’s credible for the not-too-distant future.

Hopefully the councilmember will attend the February 12 meeting.  Perhaps some of the St. Vincent High School debate team will also participate.  If they promise to ask questions in a normal speed voice.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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