03 November 2019

The "technical debt" of America's infrastructure

Excerpts from a very sobering article in The Atlantic:
A kind of toxic debt is embedded in much of the infrastructure that America built during the 20th century. For decades, corporate executives, as well as city, county, state, and federal officials, not to mention voters, have decided against doing the routine maintenance and deeper upgrades to ensure that electrical systems, roads, bridges, dams, and other infrastructure can function properly under a range of conditions. Kicking the can down the road like this is often seen as the profit-maximizing or politically expedient option. But it’s really borrowing against the future, without putting that debt on the books.

In software development, engineers have long noted that taking the easy way out of coding problems builds up what they call “technical debt,” as the tech journalist Quinn Norton has written...

Almost everywhere you look in the built environment, toxic technical-debt bubbles are growing and growing and growing. This is true of privately maintained systems such as PG&E’s and publicly maintained systems such as that of Chicago’s Department of Water Management. It’s extremely true of roads: Soon, perhaps 50 percent of Bay Area roads will be in some state of disrepair, not to mention the deeper work that must occur to secure the roadbeds, not just the asphalt on top.

Then there are the sewers and the wastewater plants. Stormwater drains. Levees. And just regular old drinking water. Per capita federal funding for water infrastructure has fallen precipitously since the 1970s. Cities are forced to make impossible decisions between funding different services. And even when they do have the money they need, officials make bad or corrupt decisions. So, water systems in the United States have built up a $1 trillion technical debt, which must be paid over the next 25 years. The problem is particularly acute in the Great Lakes states. One investigation, by American Public Media, found that from 2007 to 2018 Chicago residents’ water bills tripled, and Cleveland residents’ doubled. In Detroit, a city with a median income of less than $27,000, the average family paid $1,151 for water. At these rates, poor residents are far more likely to have their water shut off, and the systems still aren’t keeping up with the maintenance they need. Runaway technical debt makes it nearly impossible to pay the “interest,” which is just keeping the system running, let alone to start paying down the principal or start new capital projects.

All told, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it will cost $3.6 trillion to get Americans back to an acceptable level of technical debt in our infrastructure.
The linked article by Quinn Norton is also sobering.
What Californians, as well as many other Americans, and hundreds of millions of people around the world need to give up on is living where they think they ought to be able to live. Californians are busy building new neighborhoods into the rightful territory of giant fast moving infernos; post-Hurricane Texans think they have the right to build in low-elevation Houston, and poverty-stricken Bangladeshis and Indonesians think they should hold on to the shores they’ve always lived on.
Houston is technical debt. New Orleans is technical debt. Puerto Rico is plagued by intertwined monetary and technical debt.


  1. Yep. After World War Two, Americans built themselves a nearly perfect world.

    Then they forgot to maintain it, and voted for tax cuts. And now they're insulted that the younger generation is angry at them for dumping all these bills on the future.

    BTW: Climate change is part of this story.

  2. There was episode dedicated to Infrastructure on Last Week Tonight:

  3. Once again, the baby boomers screwed over future generations for their own gain. "Greatest generation" my a**. (/rant)

    1. The "Greatest Generation" was actually the generation that fought WWII, Boomers are mostly the children of the GG.

  4. Yes, you are correct however, I have heard multiple boomers refer to themselves as the "greatest generation" as a self-appointed title. Self-appointed titles are always bullshit. If someone else, who doesn't rely on you for a paycheck, doesn't regard you with the label, you're just self-fellating your ego. It describes the above mentioned people and our current president perfectly.


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