What Happened to Dreaming Big?

SennAs many of you know, I live in Chicago.   But what many may not know is that my hometown is home to some of the most remarkable high school structures in the country.  I drive around, look at such sprawling, stately building such as Lane Tech, St. Ignatius and Senn High, and I find myself simply amazed at their physical grace, their stunning detail, and for lack of a better term, their architectural majesty.

But what’s most amazing about the majority of these high schools is that they were constructed at the most unlikeliest of times to commit so much capital, so many man-hours, and such mountains of resources to their construction. Some were built during World War I, others during the Depression, and almost all of them when America was still a fledgling, teetering and largely agrarian economy.

Hoover DamYet back then, our grandparents and great grandparents were bound and determined to build the best schools possible because they knew that education was going to be the key to a better life for their children and their children’s children.  It was the key that promised to unlock the untapped and still-slumbering greatness that lied buried deep within the soul of this country.

They may just have been farmers and factory workers.  And they may have had their life savings not in things like T-bills, mutual funds or IRAs, but in cookie jars and cigar boxes.  But they were willing to do something that it now seems we’ve stopped doing in this country.

Empire State constructionThey dared to dream big.

Why do I say we’ve apparently stopped dreaming big?  Look no further than the still-unresolved issue of America’s decaying infrastructure.  Look, we know our infrastructure has been slowly rotting away for a while.  Heck, I’ve been screaming about it fact for years.

And even if a word had never been written about the issue, the eye test alone could have told you our infrastructure was rotting.  (Plus, there’s been all the decay we couldn’t see, as evidenced by Flint, Michigan’s network of water pipes that we now know is slowing but surely killing its residents).

Decaying InfrastructureAnd we know too that (literally) trillions of taxpayer dollars are going to be needed to either repair or replace so many of this country’s bridges, tunnels, power and water lines.

But even if we didn’t know any of that, and even if we’d had our head buried in the sand for the past two decades, all we would have had to have done is look at the 2013 Infrastructure Report Card that issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers that gave the very backbone of our nation’s economy an embarrassingly low grade of D+.

Golden Gate constructionSure at some point over the past eight years I would have loved to have seen the Obama Administration propose a New Deal-like program that would have put thousands of men and women back to work rebuilding our infrastructure, while at the same time teaching countless un- and underemployed Americans critical job skills and instilling in them a real sense of purpose, work ethic and achievement.

But that’s not the point of this essay.

Palm IslandsThe point is this:  American manufacturers are competing in a global economy and selling to a 21st Century global marketplace.  Why, in god’s name, are we still operating with a 20th Century mindset and why do we continue to nickel-and-dime over what remains a 20th Century infrastructure?

Why aren’t we dreaming bigger?  Why aren’t we thinking bolder?  Where, for example, are the plans for this century’s Hoover Dam, this century’s Golden Gate Bridge or this century’s Tennessee Valley Authority?

China infrastructureThat previous generation of Americans reached for the stars and dared to try the impossible.  Sure, they sometimes failed.  But dammit, they tried.  What’s more, they did all that dreaming knowing that the benefits of their labors and sacrifice would create a rising economic tide that would float all boats – not just their own.

Want to feel ashamed about the state of America’s infrastructure? Look what China is now doing. Look what India is doing.  Look what Brazil is doing. For all their economic missteps – and, believe me, they continue to make more than their share – they are doing one thing very right.  They are all re-imagining the very idea of infrastructure.  Each is designing and building 21st bridges, tunnels, roads, ports and networks, and each is embracing and harnessing 21st Century energy sources — all with both eyes fixed squarely on the 21st Century global marketplace.

China HS RailNow is not the time for us to rant and rave about things like small government and balanced budgets.  Now is not the time for us to nickel-and-dime one another or to place our personal politics ahead of the common good.

Now is the time to invest – and I mean invest collectively.  And now is the time to put our government to work doing what it does best: taking care of its people.

Now, more than ever, is the time for Washington to hire this country’s dreamers and to unleash them to do what they have always done best. Dream big.

China BridgeBecause dreaming big and dreaming bold is how we are going to erect a 21st Century infrastructure in this country, my friends — one that will be able to withstand the pressures and the promise of the 21st Century marketplace.  And that, I promise you, is America’s last best hope to remain the leader of this new global economy.



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