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Filmed on Tuesday October 6, 02015

James Fallows

Civilization's Infrastructure

Journalist James Fallows has been a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine for over 30 years. His books include: National Defense (National Book Award); Looking at the Sun; Breaking the News; Free Flight; Blind into Baghdad; Postcards from Tomorrow Square; and China Airborne.


Infrastructure decisions—and failures to decide—affect everything about a society for centuries. That long shadow, James Fallows points out, is what makes the decisions so difficult, because "We must choose among options whose consequences we can't fully anticipate.” What we do know is that infrastructure projects are hugely disruptive and expensive in the short term, and neglecting to deal with infrastructure is even more disruptive and expensive in the long term. What would a healthy civilization do?

These days California is making decisions about high-speed rail, about water supply for agriculture, about driverless cars, about clean energy—all infrastructure issues with long, uncertain shadows. Fallows reminds us that "Everything about today's California life is conditioned by decisions about its freeway network made 60-plus years ago, and by the decision to tear up the Southern California light-rail network in the decades before that.” (That remark came in a 15-part series of blogs about high-speed rail in California that Fallows posted at theatlantic.com. He approves of the project.)

James Fallows is the journalist’s journalist, covering in depth subjects such as China, the Mideast, flying, the military, Presidential speeches (he once wrote them for Jimmy Carter), journalism itself, and his native California. Based at The Atlantic magazine for decades, he blogs brilliantly and has produced distinguished books such as Postcards from Tomorrow Square, Blind into Baghdad, and Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy.

This will be the first time he speaks about civilization entire.

Infrastructure investment tricks

All societies under-invest in their infrastructure—in the systems that allow them to thrive. There is hardware infrastructure: clean water, paved roads, sewer systems, airports, broadband; and, Fallows suggested, software infrastructure: organizational and cultural practices such as education, safe driving, good accounting, a widening circle of trust. China, for example, is having an orgy of hard infrastructure construction. It recently built a hundred airports while America built zero. But it is lagging in soft infrastructure such as safe driving and political transition.

Infrastructure always looks unattractive to investors because the benefits: 1) are uncertain; 2) are delayed; and 3) go to others—the public, in the future. And the act of building infrastructure can be highly disruptive in the present. America for the last forty years has starved its infrastructure, but in our history some highly controversial remarkable infrastructure decisions got through, each apparently by a miracle—the Louisiana Purchase, the Erie Canal, the Gadsden Purchase, the Alaska Purchase, National Parks, Land Grant colleges, the GI Bill that created our middle class after World War II, and the Interstate highway system.

In Fallows’ view, the miracle that enabled the right decision each time was either an emergency (such as World War II or the Depression), stealth (such as all the works that quietly go forward within the military budget or the medical-industrial complex), or a story (such as Manifest Destiny and the Space Race). Lately, Fallows notes, there is a little noticed infrastructure renaissance going in some mid-sized American cities, where the political process is nonpoisonous and pragmatic compared to the current national-level dysfunction.

By neglecting the long view, Fallows concluded, we overimagine problems with infrastructure projects and underimagine the benefits. But with the long view, with the new wealth and optimism of our tech successes, and expanding on the innovations in many of our cities, there is compelling story to be told. It might build on the unfolding emergency with climate change or on the new excitement about space exploration. Responding to need or to opportunity, we can tell a tale that inspires us to reinvent and build anew the systems that make our society flourish.

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