A story in Saturday's Washington Post about the mounting national infrastructure deficit brings to mind the observation by journalist Janet Malcolm that "we are all perpetually smoothing and rearranging reality to conform to our wishes."
"The U.S. population is forecast to grow by 100 million – a 30 percent increase – before the middle of the 21st century," the Post reported. "And right now a nationwide transportation system built in the middle of the 20th century is falling apart. There isn't enough money to arrest its decline, and the public is largely oblivious to the need."
The story gives voice to two members of the transportation industry, who locate the source of the problem in a predictable place.
First this from transportation consultant Alan Pisarski: "Why haven't we invested? We haven't made a credible case to the American people." Then this from Peter Ruane, president of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association: "The politicians have been ignoring this data. This is negligence at the national level."
While the story usefully points out a national failure to deal with a growing problem, it is itself negligent in not pointing out that a swollen population is not an inevitable process like growing old. It is more like becoming obese – the inevitable result of an extended period of unwise behavior.
Our population growth is tied to our immigration policy. Most of the projected addition of 100 million Americans will come from future immigration, as immigrants settle here and have children. And while much of it will begin with illegal immigration, most of it is due to the approximately one million persons from around the world on whom we annually bestow green cards.
Unfortunately, much of American journalism, following the negligent lead of environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and liberal foundations like Carnegie and Ford, fails to make the connection among immigration, population growth, and stress on a wide range of systems and institutions.
For these groups, advocacy of immigration controls is politically incorrect, tainted by the excesses of those at the virulent, nativist extreme of the debate. That reflexive response is as facile as it is to condemn as Marxist those who want to restrict Wall Street because some would indeed like to abolish capitalism.
The process here was described in a story in this weekend's Wall Street Journal about the work of Daniel Kahneman, a Princeton psychology professor and Nobel Laureate. The article summed up a key Kahneman insight this way: "When people face an uncertain situation, they don't carefully evaluate the information or look up relevant statistics. Instead, their decisions depend on mental short cuts, which often lead them to make foolish decisions."
To refuse to tax ourselves to pay for necessary infrastructure upgrades is foolish and self-defeating. So is a failure a refusal to adjust our immigration policies to slow the growth of our population. We're on a course to have a population of 600 million at the beginning of the next century. Many of the newcomers are getting stuck at the bottom rungs of an economy that has lost many of its middle rungs. The policies that produce this situation are truly negligence at the national level, and the Post's failure to address the problem is poor journalism.