The 11th flattener

Infrastructure investment deserves a spot on Tom Friedman’s list of forces flattening the world, argues Cezary Podkul.

In The World is Flat, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman argues that the flattening of the world will reshape political identities and make Democrats and Republicans strange bedfellows on some issues, unlikely adversaries on others.

Two weeks ago, chatting with Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels in Indianapolis, I had an idea for an expansion of Friedman’s theory.

The topic of our discussion, of course, was infrastructure. It is not one of Friedman’s 10 flatteners of the world. But after I finished speaking with the governor, I was convinced that infrastructure deserved a spot as an 11th flattener.

I read the governor an excerpt from a letter Jim Oberstar and Peter DeFazio, Democratic leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, sent to then-Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters in November: “While no [PPP] deal in the US has collapsed to date, the lack of transparency and unacceptable level of risk assumed by these firms underscores the need to ensure that the public partner to these deals is not left responsible for bad business decisions, or that roadway users are not forced to pay artificially high tolls to meet investor revenue expectations.”

“What do you make of their criticism?” I asked the governor.

“It’s troglodytic,” Daniels said. “It’s just amazing [that] the people who affect to be concerned about the infrastructure deficit are so theologically opposed to what could be part of the answer.”

A Republican calling a Democratic stance troglodytic? Theological?

For a minute, the world seemed upside down. After all, we’ve just sat through a two-year long election cycle during which Republicans were constantly painted as the party of the status quo and Democrats prided themselves as the party of change and innovation.

It’s not that fresh approaches on how to tackle the US’ infrastructure deficit only come from Republicans. Chicago’s Richard Daley and Pennsylvania’s Ed Rendell are cases in point.

But it goes to show that infrastructure is one of those issues that has the potential to reshape traditional political alignments and forge new alliances between Democrats and Republicans. We’re already seeing this on display in Building America’s Future – an infrastructure investment advocacy group created two years ago by Ed Rendell (D), Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and Michael Bloomberg (D/R/I – he’s been all three).

Daniels, for his part, views infrastructure as a great bi-partisan issue and argues vigorously that it should be de-politicised.

“We believe in very limited government, our administration. But those things government should do [it] should do very well, and building infrastructure is one. I’d like nothing better than to link arms with folks who pursue it by a variety of means, but this should surely be one,” he said, referencing his long-term lease of the Indiana Toll Road.

Does this mean that infrastructure is therefore a force flattening the world? Not yet, at least. Governments are just now beginning to come to grips with their funding challenges and inviting the private sector to help them out. So the journey is just beginning.

But just imagine a world in which it is as easy to flip a light switch, turn on a faucet, or drive down a road in India as it is in the US, and it becomes painfully obvious that infrastructure investment has tremendous potential to flatten the world by re-aligning the flow of worldwide commerce.

And with it, politics as usual.