On Wednesday Democrats unveiled their $1 trillion answer to Donald Trump's infrastructure plan. The bill would spend heavily on projects such as road development, water and sewer systems and even some new schools. Financed by repealing the Republican tax cuts, it is a more fiscally solvent piece of legislation than the one pushed by the Trump White House and one far more likely to actually achieve its policy goals.
It is also, like the Trump plan, completely misguided.
The main problem when it comes to America's infrastructure planning, beyond a reluctance to invest today in projects which will pay off tomorrow, is that most politicians are stuck in the past. When they look at infrastructure projects they see highways and plumbing and high tension wires, technologies mastered over 100 years ago when America was far more committed to investing in the public good. They also see a job program for the kind of voter who'll build those systems, typically blue collar workers who tend to skew Republican and have been hit hard by the modern economy.
This is not a partisan issue. Just as Trump posed delightedly behind the wheel of a really big truck, Barak Obama embraced the term "shovel ready." It conjured up the image of road crews and construction sites and the kind of men (typically) who work with their hands.
And it's true that America needs those projects. For years economists, civil engineers and politicians have warned that America's physical infrastructure is in an increasingly desperate state of disrepair, so much so that the American Society of Civil Engineers has given the nation a D+ overall. Levees in the South do need repairs and the tunnel connecting New York to New Jersey remains damaged from Hurricane Sandy.
Still, did you know that they hold their elections online in Estonia? Or that a person in South Korea accesses the internet four times faster than the average American? Or that a quarter of all payments in Kenya are made via cell phone?
Meanwhile, hundreds of school districts across the American west have collapsed to a four day school week in order to save money.
Infrastructure is not just about roads and bridges and delivering things from Point A to Point B. It's the mechanics of what makes a society and an economy function.
"I look at it as something physical that's an economic enabler, as well as an enabler of public health and the environment," said RAND Corporation researcher Debra Knopman. "Often infrastructure has benefits that extend beyond those that are the direct users of the infrastructure. You may live someplace on one side of the bridge and you may never leave your house to go to the other side, but the existence of the bridge is a huge benefit to you because your supermarket is going to be stocked with goods."
"It can include a lot of different things, but it's something by and large that the origins of it had this public element, that these assets would not exist but for this pooling of funding across a very broad base of users."
An infrastructure project is about both the people who use it and the effects it has on a community at large. Schools educate students, but they also provide businesses with a skilled workforce and provide the country with an educated electorate. Roads don't just make a commuter's life easier, they allow businesses to flourish and stores to stock their shelves. The interstate highway system alone is credited for a third of all U.S. economic growth in the first years after it was constructed.
And the interstate highway system truly is a wonder of the modern world, but it's time America started thinking about what new wonders it can create.
Instead of focusing on the public works projects from 50 years ago, politicians need to start thinking about what the interstate highway of the 21st Century will be. (Hint: You're probably using it to read this article.) Ensuring broadband to every citizen might be revolutionary today, but modern society is built on the fact that the electric grid was guaranteed to everyone instead of getting handed over to the whims of a 1930's Comcast.
In a new century America needs to embrace new infrastructure, and it needs to expand its vision of the old. Yes, there are places that need new bridges, but sometimes there aren't.
What should America build instead?
Broadband internet networks. Cellular towers. Schools with dedicated budgets so that towns can fill them with teachers all five days a week. Offices dedicated to helping people vote, massive alternative energy projects and endowed local newspapers so that everyone can learn what's happening in their communities.
"The story really is, it depends on what you're talking about where the infrastructure is located and the economic context within which the investment is being made," said Knopman.
"It's pretty hard to do that by looking at a map, and it's that kind of process of thinking about the top priority by thinking about what regional needs are that we haven't had."
Investing in American infrastructure is the great challenge of the coming decade. Too many of the systems we rely on have been allowed to corrode over time because we built them really well to begin with. Sometimes that does mean filling potholes or shoring up a dam.
Just as often, however, it means making sure that children receive a quality education and planning for the future.
Infrastructure is not about making jobs for people who work with shovels, and it's not about making sure that the government keeps investing in what worked in the 1950's. It is about building the systems that tie a community together and make the economy stronger for everyone.
That's the infrastructure bill America needs.