What We Mean When We Talk about Infrastructure

In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about a study that looked at how we make snap decisions, particularly those that happen just beyond our conscious thought. In one of the studies Gladwell wrote about, the researchers found that we make less informed decisions when we feel as though our life is in danger. The reason: when you go into survival mode, your body begins to shut down any peripheral sense that doesn’t immediately allow for the common defense.

Practically speaking that means you begin to see less. Hear less. And everything about your environment becomes very small, filtered through the pinhole of survival. (In sci-fi parlance, it’s simply rerouting all the power to shields!)

That filtering may redirect energies into immediate survival, but it also means you begin missing vital pieces of information. Your body focuses all of its energy not on external stimuli but instead upon surviving whenever is directly in front of you. And that means your actions may help you survive, but your judgment is severely impaired as data points are reduced.

Now the study Gladwell used in his book focused on police shootings, specifically those that involved unarmed suspect, but the idea behind the research — that we increasingly make less-informed decisions when our survival is threatened — is analogous to what’s happening in Appalachia today.

That region — almost since its inception — is facing a life-threatening situation, one that has accelerated since 1965.

That death spiral has caused a great political upheaval in this country, one that countless people are trying to understand. And so many of them are looking for one, single, easy answer to the question of why there is so much anger coming from rural communities. Because if we can find that single answer, we can cure so much of what’s going wrong in the country.

But the truth is — I think — that there isn’t one, single answer. And I think that America is broken along class — and opportunity — lines in a way that we are bad at speaking about. But if you pressed me on the one idea that can fix the problems we face, I would tell you the least interesting answer in the world:

Fix the infrastructure.

* * *

So what in the hell do I mean when I say “fix the infrastructure.” Every four years, we hear politicians talk about fixing this thing, but I suspect most people would be hard pressed to really get into what that means beyond tell you that we need better roads and schools that don’t fall down. (We need both of those, by the way.)

Indulge me for a minute.

The infrastructure problem dates back to the founding of the country, and it’s tied to the very way that we govern. The southern colonies were built on a system of feudalism, in which a small number of people control large swaths of the land. Those landowners were given rights as citizens, while the workers were stripped of the kinds of rights that would give them the ability to change the system.

You know this from history: That system began with indentured servants shipped in from England and then morphed into slavery, which stood as law of the land until the end of Civil War.

The problem that’s plagued Appalachian is that after the War, the people assumed (or maybe never concerned themselves with the idea that) feudalism died as well.

But it didn’t.

Only slavery — and then indentured servitude — died.  (And let’s be honest: We can probably have a really interesting conversation about whether either of those two really died.) What remained throughout Appalachia was the hidden remnants of feudalism that was baked into the DNA for the region. What remained was an economic system where land speculators and corporations took control of the mineral-bearing land. In Kentucky — my family’s ancestral home — those speculators shared that wealth with a small cabal of politicians (and you can read all about that in So Far Appalachia) in order to maintain control of the area.

Since the Civil War, the region’s mineral wealth has been extracted and taken away by companies not based in the region, and with no stake in developing the economic and social interests of the area. What was left behind for the people of Appalachia was the remnants of a land that was no longer rich in minerals energy, and that has little ability to control the exploitation of its other natural resources.

The region was left on life support because it was designed that way.

* * *

But here’s the thing: Once you know the fix is in, you aren’t really interested in playing the game anymore.

In the run up to the nineteen sixty presidential election, the thirteen Appalachian governors realized the fix was in. They could no longer stand alone against the corporate and government interests that conspired to control its land. They could no longer stand as individuals. Instead, they needed to a coalition. And so they petitioned then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, Jr., asking him to appoint a commission that would unite the region as an economic entity that could better regulate each state’s individual borders.

(Today, those on the right would likely call this a federal takeover. I know this because as I’ve written about the history of the region, I’ve far-right conservative Appalachian call me a liberal and berate the federal government’s meddling in the region — despite the fact that thirteen governors asked for this. In our polarized time, it’s difficult to explain that this commission was the states recognizing how to best use its power.)

Washington didn’t immediately take to the idea, and it took five years for the federal government to hear the pleas of the Appalachian governors. Only after President Kennedy was assassinated did President Lyndon Johnson fulfilled the promise that Kennedy had made when he was running for president.

What came out of that comprehensive study was the creation of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), a group organized to study and implement economic change throughout the region.

The initial charter contained four ideas that ARC would focus on, which would be the keys to Appalachia getting out from under its feudalist history: develop and exploit the alternative energies that existed within the region, build out the education system, develop economic corridors, and most importantly build an infrastructure that would connect the region’s many rural areas to the large economic centers.

Of those four ideas, the ARC and the Appalachian governors argued — in no uncertain terms — that infrastructure building was the most important part of those four recommendations. Without that infrastructure, the ARC position states, the other three elements would fail.

If they just exploited the natural resources of the region, that would likely continue to be controlled by companies that didn’t have any allegiance to that particular region. If they just bolstered the education system, they would educating people who would have no jobs and eventually leave. If they just built out the business corridors, they would face a shortage of workers.

What they truly needed was to build the veins through which the blood of prosperity could flow. In other words: without creating the connective tissue that would bring Appalachia into the fold with the rest of the American economy the region would slowly die.

* * *

Now you’re reading this in 2017 so you know something went wrong. Somehow that infrastructure building never happened. No connective tissue was built. No transportation systems developed.

The reason — or at least one reason — is that Congress gutted two parts of the ARC’s original recommendations. It de-emphasized the exploitation of alternative energies, preferring to allow the corporations that has extracted most of the mineral wealth from the region already to determine what energies should be harvested next. And it also decided to forgo building out the transportation and connected infrastructures that would have made Appalachia part of the national economy.

Instead, the ARC’s mandate focused almost exclusively on building out the business corridors,  assuming that once those were built money would flow into the region thus bolstering the education, infrastructure, and natural resource exploitation.

But gutting the most important part of the mandate — creating an infrastructure that allowed for social, educational, and business mobility — left in place the very structures of feudalism that ensured that a few people would control the most important parts of the region.

And so here we are today: Appalachia has been choked off from the national — and global — economy. Small rural towns are dying. Young people — when they can — leave, and never come back. Those who can’t are left to live in a place where jobs that were once abundant have now gone away. And without the infrastructure, there’s little new money coming in and nearly no social mobility throughout the region.

The senses are shutting down. And people are making decisions for fear of survival, without all the data points that others have. And Appalachian parents not only fear for their own economic security, but also the economic security of their children.

Say what you will, but the people and the region are faced with extinction. And so there is a laser focus on one thing and one thing alone: creating the infrastructure and jobs that will save not only the people who live there now, but the children of the people who live there now.

That is the number one issue facing the area. That is the lens through which every — every — decision is processed by the twenty-four million people who populate Appalachia.

While there are surely — and inevitably — those who have other nefarious, wretched reasons for the decisions they make, there are countless others who are struggling to imagine a world in which tomorrow will be even marginally less terrible than today.

Everything else — all the hand-wringing that those of us who have options, who have choices, and who have opportunities — see around the periphery in a way that those facing the long, slow death may not.