This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
The US security complex is up in arms about cyberhackers and foreign terrorists targeting America’s vulnerable infrastructure. Think tank reports have highlighted the chinks in homeland security represented by unsecured ports, dams and power plants. We’ve been bombarded by stories about outdated software that is subject to hacking and the vulnerability of our communities to bioterrorism. Reports such as the Heritage Foundation’s “Microbes and Mass Casualties: Defending America Against Bioterrorism” describe a United States that could be brought to its knees by its adversaries unless significant investments are made in “hardening” these targets.
But the greatest dangers for the United States do not lurk in terrorist cells in the mountains surrounding Kandahar that are planning to assault American targets. Rather, our vulnerabilities are homegrown. The United States plays host to thousands of nuclear weapons, toxic chemical dumps, radioactive waste storage facilities, complex pipelines and refineries, offshore oil rigs and many other potentially dangerous facilities that require constant maintenance and highly trained and motivated experts to keep them running safely.
The United States currently lacks safety protocols and effective inspection regimes for the dangerous materials it has amassed over the past sixty years. We don’t have enough inspectors and regulators to assess the safety and security of ports, bridges, pipelines, power plants and railways. The rapid decline in our financial, educational and institutional infrastructure is the greatest threat to the safety of Americans today.
And it’s getting worse. The current round of cutbacks in federal spending for low-visibility budgets for maintainence and inspection, combined with draconian cuts in public education, makes it even more difficult to find properly trained people and pay them the necessary wages to maintain infrastructure. As Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution points out, the 2015 budget fresh off the press includes a chart indicating that non-defense discretionary spending—including critical investments in infrastructure, education and innovation—will continue to drop severely, from 3.1 percent of gross domestic product in 2013 to just 2.2 percent in 2024. This decision has been made even though the average rate for the past forty years has been 3.8 percent and the United States will require massive infrastructure upgrades over the next fifty years.