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The Days of Miracle and Wonder

Wed 12 November 2014 by Rick Gilmore

Golden Gate Bridge

While I was having lunch, I saw a story on CNN reporting that the Philae probe had landed safely on Comet 67P, a first for human kind. It brought to mind one late night in July 1969 when my parents let me stay up way too late to watch another first for human kind. Armstrong's walk on the Moon was the best birthday present a young space fan could imagine asking for. In those days there seemed to be nothing within the grasp of human imagination that hard work and a devotion to the principles of science could not achieve in time.

The Philae probe represents a triumph of the European Space Agency and its partners, and the scientists and engineers who realized this dream deserve our admiration and congratulations. But, the achievement brings to my mind something that America seems to have forgotten -- the central role that public investments in infrastructure, both cultural and technological, have played in our prosperity.

America's growth and achievements in the 20th century were made possible by a cluster of largely unique cultural innovations that originated in the 18th and 19th centuries. These innovations played such a foundational role in our history that they deserve to be called infrastructure, "the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities needed for the operation of a society or enterprise." The following come to mind: our Constitution and Bill of Rights, free public schools, the land grant universities, and free public libraries. These reflect the American focus on protecting the rights of individuals, while ensuring widespread access to skills, information, and ideas.

On the technological side of the infrastructure ledger, I would point to our systems of transportation -- canals, railways, highways, and airports -- and communication -- the mail service, telegraphy, telephony, radio/television, and more recently the internet. These elements emphasize the free flow of people, goods, and information.

Both our cultural and technological infrastructure have been the envy of the world at various points in our history. Both types of infrastructure have involved significant public investments and the active engagement of government. But, in saying this we must acknowledge that America has slipped from a leadership position in many areas of cultural and technological infrastructure. For example, neither our schools, roads, bridges, nor internet infrastructure lead the world, and we lack consensus about how to regain our former position.

If I'm right that public investments in critical infrastructure -- the kind that ensures widespread access to and the efficient flow of ideas, goods, and people -- is what made (and can again make) America great, then we know what we have to do. We just have to remind ourselves about our own history. And roll up our sleeves.


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