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When it Comes to Infrastructure, China Dreams Big

China infrastructureA while back I wrote about the extent to which China trailed us, not so much in manufacturing output, but in the institutional knowledge a country accumulates after a century’s worth of heavy industry.

For all its potential and exponential growth, China, for example, had yet to learn the importance of clean water and air. It had yet to appreciate the value of healthy and emotionally engaged workers, or well-managed natural resources. It had yet to China bridgeembrace the need for education; much less higher education, and had no idea what do to during an economic slowdown, or worse, a steep downturn.

It also remained disdainful of free flowing of ideas, peaceful dissent, and any and all information emanating from places other than the motherland.

I mentioned too that China had a woeful infrastructure and that all the manufacturing capability in the world would be of little use without a network of quality roads and portals to support it.

China tunnelWell, given the fact that centuries ago China undertook the building of a great stone wall to keep its foes at bay in what was, arguably the single most ambitious public works project in history, is it any wonder that of all the things I pointed out just a few years ago the country is doing its best to fix what had always been deemed an archaic infrastructure?

Because, as the New York Times pointed out last week, not only has China committed billions in infrastructure spending, it is doing it in ways that promise to be not only difference makers, but modern day equivalents of the Great Wall.

Among the projects that have been built or started since I wrote my piece on China’s shortcomings:

  • $2.3 billion for the world’s longest sea-crossing bridge
  • A $36 billion tunnel, twice as long as the tunnel under the English Channel, linking two seaports separated by a mountain
  • The world’s second tallest office building
  • The world’s largest shipping container port, which extends a full 20 miles into the sea
  • The largest commercial building in the world, complete with its own artificial sun and big enough to house the U.S. Pentagon three times over
  • A $17.5 billion wind farm capable of producing 20,000 megawatts by 2020
  • A freight rail link between China and Spain that allows goods and materials to be bulk shipped back and forth between the two countries — a distance roughly twice the width of the U.S. — in just 20 days.

China highwayLook, we can talk all we want about American superiority, but if as a country we remain insistent on playing politics and nickel-and-diming over whether or not to repave a road or rebuild a bridge while our biggest competitor continues to dream big and continues to spend whatever it takes to — in the name of commerce — move mountains and part seas, just how long do you figure that superiority is going to last?


On Infrastructure and Wayward GOP Leaders

State of the UnionAs I was watching the State of the Union address last night, a zillion thoughts crossed my mind, and I wanted to share two of them with you today.

First, when the President was talking about the need for rebuilding our infrastructure – something about which I have been crowing for years – I thought to myself, “When did Republicans become so anti-business?” Because while public safety is certainly growing more and more at risk as our infrastructure ages, the real danger to all that crumbling concrete and rotting steel is to our nation’s economy, or more to the point, to the thousands of U.S. businesses that fuel it.

And yet Republicans these days seem utterly hell-bent on thwarting the President at every turn – more so, anyway, than staying true to their mission and doing what they Infrastructure Cartooncan do to help the American businessman. (And I won’t even get into the Tea Party here, and how those bozos have proven time and time again they have no interest whatsoever in the greater good or the big picture, and are interested only in trying to somehow prove themselves right.)

But in the Republican leadership’s zeal to ensure its party wins back the Oval Office in 2016, it seems a few politically ambitious zealots have proved themselves all-too-willing to let the country rot if doing so will further their own political agenda.

But what those win-at-all-cost GOP zealots have seemingly lost sight of is the fact that all their obstructionism is putting businesses like mine at risk – businesses that are trying desperately to compete in a global marketplace and for whom the #1 Party of Noreason for sleepless nights is an ever-crumbling network of bridges, tunnels, roads, seaports, airports and telecommunications conduits and connections.

Which leads me to my second thought.

When, in god’s name, did Republicans also become knee-jerk opponents to public works projects? Seriously. Do they really hate the President that badly?

And, along those lines, has the far right’s unsettling disdain for science now been extended to include American history?

Consider: last night, even without doing any research or opening a book, I called to mind two of the most vital public works Hoover Damprojects in U.S. history – Hoover Dam and the interstate system – and the fact that both were conceived and spearheaded by Republican Presidents and both made a reality through the joint efforts of a Congress that was clearly more concerned with the greater good than the next election.

That, I suppose, is what happens when one of our political parties turns the keys over to people whose calling card is the fact they were C students, and proud of it.

The Yin and Yang of U.S. Energy (or Why We Need a Policy)

Gas Drilling Western PoliticsFirst off, let’s get one thing straight. I take a back seat to no one when it comes to an appreciation for the transformative power of cheap energy.

Sure, re-shoring has been a factor in helping bring about this renaissance in U.S. manufacturing, as are increased costs abroad and a spike in foreign worker demands. But all those things get dwarfed (and then some) by the glut of suddenly affordable energy, particularly oil and natural gas, we now have at our disposal.

So you’d think I’d be an unabashed, unapologetic and dyed-in-the-wool proponent of all things cheap energy, right? And that I’d be so mad I’d be spitting nickels that last week Congress killed the Keystone pipeline that would have brought even more cheap oil from rural Canada to refineries in Texas.

Well, you see, that’s where things start to get a little tricky. Because every time I feel I want to push all my chips toward the center of the table and declare myself “All in” on cheap, domestically controlled energy, the other side of my brain starts chirping.

Fracking 2Because while cheap energy means so many great things for U.S. manufacturers, at least in the short term, those great things, it seems, all seem to come at a price.

For example, cheap energy will mean manufacturers and heavy industry in this country remains wedded to a 20th Century fuel source and remain that much less inclined to research and develop cleaner, more sustainable sources of industrial power, including wind, solar and nuclear – all of which will ensure not only a healthier and more environmentally balanced planet for our children and theirs, but thousands of high-paying, high-skilled jobs in the process.

Cheap energy as its now defined will also mean we continue to burn fossil fuels, continue to destroy what little of this earth’s pristine beauty and wilderness still remain, continue to dump billions of tons of carbon into oceans and the atmosphere, and continue to put our planet in harm’s way, causing it (and us) irreparable damage.

(And, yes Virginia, I am living, breathing proof it is possible to ferociously embrace the tenets of capitalism while still believing in the unimpeachable science behind climate change.)

Fracking 3I call it the yin and yang of 21st Century American energy.

But that’s only one such instance in which some aspect of our industrial power equation is accompanied by a dual cause and effect.

Consider just a few such ironies as they relate to our current energy situation:

  • In a day and age when the call for lower taxes is so strong it threatens to drown out all other debate, now more than ever we must spend billions, if not trillions of federal money to rebuild our country’s infrastructure, the most critical aspect of which is a rapidly decaying and woefully inadequate power grid.
  • The established, traditional power companies that are paying to maintain our nation’s power grid do not get one dime of financial help from all the start up and alternative energy power concerns now springing up from coast to coast, virtually all of whom rely heavily on the very same power that grid makes possible – and at the same time those concerns are selling power directly to (or stealing customers from) the traditional companies whose grid makes their very existence possible.
  • Fracking 4The hundreds of startup companies that have grown up around the concept of fracking are now mining massive amounts of cheap shale oil and natural gas. Yet those same companies have also started to realize they could get a higher return if they sell their product overseas, so the call is growing louder and louder for these American companies to be able to sell much of the oil and gas they’re fracking to our competitors around the globe.
  • And while that overseas market will greatly expand the size of the market for those start up fracking concerns, those entrepreneur-driven companies are even now finding themselves competing in a hopelessly fickle and extremely volatile global marketplace. As a result, many are slowly coming to realize that the same cheap energy they helped make possible is cutting deeply into their margins, threatening to place them under a pile of debt, while putting many at risk of being destroyed by the very thing they created.
  • Just as it seems we’ve weathered the storm of China trying to flood the U.S. market with cheap, Chinese-made solar panels, and solar power has reached a point at which it’s not only practical, but profitable for American companies to produce and sell, our national appetite for solar has come to a screeching halt by the sudden glut of cheap (but environmentally devastating) fossil fuel.

Fracking 6And I could go on and on. But suffice it to say, to feel strongly about any one side of almost any current energy issue is to turn a blind eye to the full picture and the long range view.

What this all means is that, even for someone like myself, who has thrived in the open marketplace and who recognizes and respects the wisdom in that marketplace, the time has come for the government to intervene in the areas of exploring, processing, creating and marketing the energy that fuels this economy.

We need, in other words, a solid and well-developed federal energy policy, one we all buy into and support.

We need a smarter, rebuilt power grid.

We need cohesion when it comes to utilizing existing power sources and a financial and technological safety net when it comes to developing new ones.

We need long range planning more than short-term fixes and profit motives.

Fracking 7And we need to understand that nothing in the business of energy exists in a vacuum. Our planet and our grandchildren must have a say in how business is conducted. After all, we’re not the future. They are.

And all one has to do is to consider at any one variable in today’s current power equation, try to (if only for a moment) look beyond the politics of self interest and the length of one’s own nose, to see that as a country we no longer need motivation or additional profit incentives. We’ve got plenty of those.

What we need now is a plan.