The language of “human infrastructure” versus human rights

President Joe Biden was in the Chicago suburbs yesterday and talked about his proposal for infrastructure improvements in the United States:

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President Joe Biden promised jobs and better access to education in an appeal that may resonate with suburban swing voters during a historic trip to McHenry County College.

“America is back,” Biden said Wednesday, promising to fund transportation through an infrastructure package that faces opposition in Congress…

During his remarks, the president touted the infrastructure program and the American Families Plan, which includes checks of up to $300 for eligible families starting this month.

“That’s good for families and is good for the economy and it will create more jobs,” said Biden, who repeated the word “jobs” several times during his speech.

Infrastructure often refers to physical structures operating in the background of society. Electricity, gas pipelines, power plants, roadways and mass transit lines. I would guess many people do not think about these much until there is a problem or it becomes very visible. As a recent example, I drove down a highway that had a pipeline pass over the roadway. While I know that pipelines are essential, I do not think about them much until I hear about them on the news (the recent pipeline ransomware, the Keystone Pipeline, etc.).

The Biden administration is pushing to include more human capital elements in its infrastructure plan. In terms of the essential pieces for society to function, jobs, health care, and other benefits are indeed important. Particularly in the era of the knowledge economy and more attention paid to inequality, including a more human element to infrastructure would hold some appeal.

At the same time, I wonder if the goals of the Biden administration fall more into the category of human rights. Should people have a right to a job, which provides income and worthwhile activity? Should there be a right to good affordable housing? A right to Internet access?

Perhaps the political calculation is that moving toward a conversation of human rights is a bridge too far. Americans have resisted the right to housing or public housing. But, call it infrastructure and housing is not guaranteed but rather an important foundation for society. On the other hand, electric lines and gas lines are essential for everyday living yet are they a right? Is the difference that infrastructure might require a cost while rights are supposed to be free or really cheap?

Given the current public conversations, this may be the way societies are headed: people should have more rights. Universal basic income might be the next area where this occurs: jobs are not enough and people should be able to have a guaranteed income source to have a decent life.

For now, American political leaders will debate exactly what infrastructure means. At the least, there will be acknowledgement that numerous building blocks of social life must be in place for desired outcomes.

Fighting zoning restrictions with “carrot, no stick” approach

The Biden administration has plans to encourage more housing by offering infrastructure money for loosening zoning regulations:

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The Biden proposal would set up a $5 billion fund for local governments to compete for grants to pay for new schools, roads or bridges if they agreed to loosen zoning rules.

“This is a new approach that is purely carrot, no stick,” said a White House official on condition of anonymity…

Trump himself explicitly campaigned against the idea last year, warning “suburban housewives” that crime would spike and home values drop if zoning rules were relaxed.

Housing experts praised Biden’s proposal, but said it may do little to influence affluent communities that have the tightest zoning laws, which have little need for federal assistance.

It will be interesting to see which communities would accept the carrot and loosen zoning. My guess: suburban communities that are already in the midst of demographic and community change and looking for funds that could help point the community in a particular direction.