A Renaissance in World Infrastructure: A Presentation to Engineers on the World Land-Bridge
The tremendous potential for a new paradigm of commitment to, and financing for infrastructure projects around the world was presented by Jason Ross to a group of civil engineers. This presentation covers the potential of the World Land-Bridge, and the kind of political fight necessary to make it a reality, including in the United States.
JASON ROSS: For this second half, I'm going to be taking up some of these global themes that we touched on at the first. Now, we can look at the world context, in which the Suez Canal is a part, but really, in its own right, the programs of the World Land-Bridge, the New Silk Road, or the One Belt, One Road project as China calls it, the World Land-Bridge/New Silk Road as I and my colleagues call it.
To do this we're going to be looking at a few different aspects. The first aspect is that we're going to talk about economics in general, what's economics, how do we measure economic growth? Second, I want to go through an overview of the projects that are involved in this proposal for a New Silk Road, for the World Land-Bridge; I want to talk about how these can be financed, which we touched on already, and projects for the U.S. specifically, what can we be doing here to have this as part of our outlook, — since the current U.S. political outlook leaves much to be desired, like a trashcan.
For starters let's think about, only human beings have economies. No biologist has discovered a species of snails that has an economy; cows don't have economies, squirrels don't have economies. They certainly don't have anything we would call economic growth. So let me just ask — there are a lot of different answers to this one — what do you think the most common ideas are for what makes human beings different from animals, if we are? What does a kid think of, speech? If you asked a five year old what might they say? Playing, self-consciousness, that's a common one. Brain, language.
There's a lot of aspects to it. I want to focus on one aspect of it which I think a biologist would be particularly interested in. If you look at some type of life, some type of organism, say, a rabbit, for a certain species of rabbit, in a certain kind of habitat there's a concept that we call "carrying capacity," — everybody's heard that, right? Carrying capacity: Only so many rabbits can live per acre of pleasant meadow, and there's only so much food, and there's going to be predators if there's going to be more than that many rabbits; so there's a carrying capacity.
I don't think humans have a carrying capacity, not the way animals do. This is a chart, labeled "Human Population Growth," but I don't think I would have had to have added the label "Human" if we were told "here's some kind of organism, and here's what its population has done over this period of time." I think it's pretty clear it's people. Cows don't over time develop irrigation systems to grow more grass. Rabbits don't breed better carrots. They don't train horses to do their work for them. Animals don't change their population.
For human beings we have, rather than a carrying capacity, I'd say that we have a potential carrying capacity, or potential population-density: how many people could be supported in a certain area, and that's a function of our knowledge and of our culture. What ways have we discovered of working together? What have we discovered about the physical universe that changes how we live with it? Are we able to purify water? Can we treat diseases? Have we mastered the use of agriculture? Do we use beasts of burden? Have we developed steam power?
This is really the history of the human species as is seen in really, the first and most important, I think, cultural backbone of Western civilization, from Greece, which is the story of Prometheus. Has everybody heard the story of Prometheus? A common story. As the story goes, Prometheus stole fire from Zeus, and gave it to human beings. Now, the most famous play, the famous source for this is Aeschylus' play Prometheus Bound, and in it Prometheus describes human beings before he gave us fire. And his description is basically, animals. He said: Human beings before I gave them these gifts of knowledge, they had eyes to see, but they didn't understand; they had ears, but they couldn't make sense of things; until I gave them fire, until I gave them, and he described the other gifts of knowledge that he gave human beings, it wasn't just fire. He said, the ability to discern the stars, to know when to plant and when to harvest; language, written language, poetry, the ability to hold thoughts in memory and create new ones; number, the use of beasts of burden, the use of sailing ships — all of this is in the story. This is everything Prometheus gave in addition to fire.
He says, "chiefest of these is fire," and that's the secret to human civilization. And it has been. If you look at different forms of what you could call "fire" over the history of our existence, and this 21st Century Science & Technology report about Prometheus and the gifts of chemistry, it goes through these different stages. The wood fire of ancient human beings that separated us from animals. Animals may use physical tools, but they don't use a technology like fire, they don't use a concept, a process in that way.
What did that let us do? By creating charcoal from wood, having a nice, basically pure carbon fuel source, we could remove the oxygen from ores: Metallurgy was born. Rocks, like copper oxide, malachite, could be turned into copper; iron ore could be made into a metal. Rocks turned into metals — amazing!
Steam power: We could use heat to transform coal or a tree, into motion! That almost seems like a magic trick that that's possible! So for the first time, we could use something besides muscles or solar power, in the form of wind or water, to create processes, to plan our economy.
Chemistry, electricity, nuclear fire: The power of the nucleus is so much greater than the chemical bonds that limit the potential power of chemical fuel sources it's just orders of magnitude, five or six hundred thousand, million times more power in nuclear bonds than in chemical bonds among the electrons; incredible potential there. Our understanding of quantum phenomena — we haven't really fully developed these things. Chemistry we know pretty well. The nucleus? We really don't know fully. If we did, we'd have fusion power by now.
So think about how we've used these form of fire: Consider this was the U.S., over the history of our country, this is the watts per capita estimates of power per person in the U.S. ["United States Energy-Flux Density, in kw per capita by fuel source] You can see a couple of things: One, it's increased. Two, the major source of power per capita has changed. Very few people use wood any more for anything. Coal supplanted wood — which is great, we don't have to cut down trees any more, we can use coal. Oil and natural gas, much better in an internal combustion engine than coal. And then, fission, which never really took off.
Imagine what would have happened if nuclear fission had developed the way earlier sources had really superseded the previous source of power. And this isn't just about having more power, it's a different quality of it. There're certain things you can do with a wood fire; you can't run a car on wood. You can't conveniently run a train on wood, it would cost a fortune; coal you can run a train; oil you can run a car. Fission, you could have much cheaper desalination for example. With fusion, we would totally transform our relationship to the physical world.
This [graphic] is a projection made from the Kennedy era, so, in 1963, this is a report from the Atomic Energy Commission to the President of where they expected power to be. At present we're using about half the power per capita that was expected in Kennedy's era. Some of that is due to efficiencies; some of it is we have much less manufacturing now in the U.S. as a portion of our economy, and we just simply didn't implement the new technologies we could have.
In terms of power and life, this is no secret. Here we have a plot here, "Electricity Use (watts per capita) vs GDP (per capita)" it's a no brainer. If you don't have electricity, you don't have a developed economy. The idea that some nations ought to have appropriate technology — I hate that phrase — is saying "you should be poor. You're not really a human being. Like me, you're a different species almost and you can just stay this way."
We have a state where much of the planet is not developed to the levels that other parts of the planet have reached. I would say no part of the planet has reached where it really should, both in terms of physical standards of living, or the sense of mission and joy you can take in times like during the Apollo program, of being part of a nation or a process that's going to the Moon. It's a very exciting process. I already mentioned this, the energy density, nuclear just blows away anything chemical.
And then people say, why don't we have fusion energy, we've been researching for years? The funding, in 1976, projections were made about when we expected to be able to have commercial fusion based on the level of funding given to fusion research. There's a certain level of funding at which it was expected it would never achieve commercial fusion, that's the maroon line. The actual funding, U.S. commitment to fusion research is below that line. It's at a funding level at which it was forecast decades ago, we would just never quite get there. As you see with the sad news recently, with MIT, where their Alcator test reactor reached a breakthrough for fusion density, and then now it's shut down; they don't have the funding. They're closing it down — it's just ...[draws deep breath]
The fact is it's these higher forms of fire, these higher forms of power as an overall basis for economy that define what we can do, that set our potential population density and you can use that as metric for economic growth: Are we increasing the potential population density of people living fulfilling lives? And so infrastructure is the major way that technologies are then mediated into the economy. If you consider maybe the point of production in a factory, there's technologies involved there; but when you consider all of the transportation of the goods along the way, intermediate goods, the raw materials, the people, the power, you know infrastructure plays a huge role, the dominant role, really, for the foundation for economy.
And what we're going through about these projects for the New Silk Road, these represent the potential — they're not the whole story, but they're a prerequisite for the development that's the real goal of it.
So let's take a tour of the world: I had mentioned this earlier, the 2014 BRICS meeting in Fortaleza [brazil], the World Land-Bridge proposal by Lyndon and Helga LaRouche which has been many aspects of this have been adopted as official policy of China in the One Belt, One Road policy, is what they call it, and the Maritime Silk Road, which is the blue line. But much of what you see here in terms of proposed and in construction connections is accompanied not only by a transportation link but by development in the region — economic growth, GDP going up, production going up, people having access to living standards that pull them out of poverty. Over the past three decades China has reduced the number of Chinese in poverty by 700 million. Very rapid, and that's something to be very happy about that that many fewer people are living in conditions of poverty.
This World Land-Bridge proposal: This is Helga Zepp-LaRouche in '96 in China, at the official Eastern Terminal of the New Euroasian Land-Bridge, her proposal. In 2013 is when the New Silk Road really officially became Chinese policy. President Xi Jinping at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan laid out, here is our Chinese proposal. Here's our New Silk Road policy, here's what we're going to do. And that has components of One Belt, One Road and of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Put together, these projects represent, as China sees them — they're not the only nation involved, but they've really taken a lead on this — as they see it, a redefining of relationships between nations, for cooperation on physical economy.
So let's go ahead and take a world tour. Here you see China and this is a map of high-speed rail in China. it's very nice. Currently, China has 20,000 km of high-speed rail, which is more than the rest of the world combined, and all of that rail was built in a decade. Pretty fast; pretty good. Over the next decade, the official plan of Chinese railways is to expand that to 38,000 km, so, again, a doubling, building as much again over the coming decade. Really tremendous.
What does this do? For them it's represented a transition from importing high-speed rail to building it themselves. Developing the ability not just to be a producer for foreign companies, but a as developing nation, developing the ability to make things domestically with domestic capacities. And it brings people into the opportunity to be connected to cities with the overall development of the nation.
Here's another major proposal: The South Water North Diversion Project. Now, China is about the same size as the United States. Its rainfall, though, is — speaking very roughly because I didn't look up the number — is about half that of the U.S. So China has major water problems, and will have major water problems into the future. The proposals that have been built, or in the case of the western area, only proposed so far, bring tremendous amounts of water from the south to the north. This is a kind of large project, like a Three Gorges Dam, this is $60 billion project, with the kind of large, long-term thinking that's required for the future.
Here we see another major transit point in the world. We talked earlier about the Suez Canal. The Suez Canal as you may remember: 7.5% of world trade passes through the Suez Canal. Anyone hazard a hypothesis on what percent of world trade goes here through the Straits of Malacca? Good guess, more than 15%. Yeah, percent of world trade going through it, shipping — 25%.
Now, it might seem funny to imagine a natural waterway as being a chokepoint, but the estimates are that over the next decade or so, if there's a growth of world trade, the Malacca Strait will be actually completely filled up, booked within a decade or two. There's so much ship traffic and in its narrowest region and its shallowest region, the Straits of Malacca, it's only 80 feet deep and it's not very wide.
A proposal that's been considered for over a century is to build a canal through the Isthmus of Kra in Thailand, the Kra Canal. The potential of this could save about 600 km for shipping, which itself is significant; the other thing is there's simply not going to be enough room — the Straits of Malacca are reaching capacity. This will become a chokepoint and a roadblock for world development.
So, much like the Suez Canal, the potential here is for building a canal and building an industrial zone along with it. Take advantage of the opportunity for easy shipping, take advantage of the workforce that's developed, build an industrial zone. This is a proposal that exists that China's been interested in. Japan has been interested. ; Japan has actually, in past decades, promoted providing financing for this, helping to finance the construction of this canal. It hasn't yet happened.
As a matter of fact, there's actually with Britain where Britain had gotten Thailand to agree not to build such a canal, because of the threat to Singapore, which at the time was British, and that would reduce the amount of shipping going past Singapore.
Other proposals here. You can see there will be road links to Japan and to Sakhalin Island in Russia. As well as a bridge, you can see it in
8 there, a bridge across the Malacca Straits. And again, just to give that number, the estimate for the Southeast Asia nations $10 trillion in infrastructure is needed. Who is going to build that? Who is going to help finance it?
These are some of the proposals that exist in the northern regions, along Russia, for an expansion of the Russian railroads, especially for the potential for mineral resources that existences in the Arctic; there's tremendous mining potential in the Arctic, resources in concentrations that aren't easily found elsewhere in the world, including rare earths. But it's the middle of the Arctic: It's difficult to get there, to get anything out of it, t bring in operations or development there. So by linking these regions, you make it possible then to bring activity there. Here's a view; not a typical view, but another view of the Earth from the North Pole.
As part of the New Silk Road/World Land-Bridge proposal, here's the greater Tumen area, there's an initiative involving mainly China and Korea for development, the potential to hopefully bring North Korea into this to have a sane policy on that peninsula.
The potential for desalination along India. I just ran some very rough numbers. California has frequent and ongoing water crises; I just worked out some rough estimates: If all of the coastal counties in California provided all of their urban water needs by desalination, based on the price of the Sorek plant that was recently built in Israel a few years ago, the capital cost with the reasonable interest rate payback over 20 years, the capital cost would only be $20 cost per person for the coastal cities in California, to build enough desalination to provide all the urban water needs; including the power required, about 70 watts per capita for desalination, you're talking about $100/person/year to have all of coastal California's urban water needs satisfied by desalination! We can already do these things!
Proposals for integration in a region that sorely needs development and integration. Imagine, instead of various forces financing lunatics to destabilize other people that they don't like, and all of the mess that's going on here, if instead we took the advantage, the opportunity to have cooperation and economic development, that's one of the greatest opportunities to fight against lunacy is potential for a future. Proposals going back to the '90s for desalination as a major part of peace in the Israel/Palestine region, where there is a common enemy: the desert! With an opportunity, with water, you have development, there's a potential to build a joint future.
Here's a tour of Europe: And so, you can see a lot of these lines are only proposed; many of them do not currently exist. These have been proposals that we have compiled from different development bodies. You can see proposals here for bridging the Strait of Gibraltar, less than 10 miles. That's doable. Spain, instead of being on the corner edge of Europe, would actually be in the middle of connecting to Africa.
A far more ambitious proposed tunnel route, this is, you can see also, Messina to Tunisia; that's more like 60 miles a little bit bigger. But imagine that, imagine a mid-Mediterranean crossing by rail and road. It's proposals.
Q: These ideas are just dreams, right?
ROSS: It's a proposal. Many of these things aren't happening right now, but that doesn't mean that they shouldn't. I know you weren't saying that, I'm just saying, we should think about what we should do and then make it happen. As soon as when we start with what seems like it's possible, you start degrading your standards and saying, well, in "in a current framework what can I get done"? As soon as you have to change the framework if it's just not allowing you to get done what you want.
This is a few years old, but this is a map of railroads in Africa, really not integrating the continent. Much of it's based on simply getting materials to the ports, colonialist railroads. Imagine what would it look like if there really was a continental rail program? So, again, yes, they're proposals; they're good dreams, but they're ones that we should bring about. But, these lines don't represent crayons drawn by a child; these are actual proposals that have been compiled.
And I brought this up earlier, this is one example: This is the new rail line that was built in Ethiopia to Djibouti, which used to be two days to get to the capital. Now, it's only 12 hours, 10 hours for a passenger train, 12 hours for a freight train. This was a project that was financed, the construction was overseen by China, not purely with Chinese workers and now there's a train line. I know recently, in the period with the bad harvest in the drought, food aid was able to be delivered much more effectively; food was able to be transported to the country much more effectively, because they had a functioning rail line, instead of a potholed, terrible road.
Here are other proposals in Egypt. I was speaking with somebody during the break about this Qattara Depression: This is a proposal for a salty lake that would be constructed in the desert here. And you might say, "what's the point of having a salty lake? You're not going to grow anything in a salt lake; it's just ocean water." Well, think about what happens when that water evaporates: How does it change the quality of the air and the weather in that region; and, you can desalinate along the coast. This is something where you can build the canal — the depression's already below sea level, you could just fill it in.
Other proposals: Here's one called Transaqua, which would take about 5% of the water from the Congo River and bring it up to help refill Lake Chad which has been shrinking from year to year, and it's a lake that's depended on for fishing, for agriculture. Again, by bringing water into the lake you increase also the amount of evaporation, you help and moderate the climate in the region.
These are proposals, many of these have existed for decades. Why haven't they been built? More proposals in Africa: Here's one by a colleague of mine, who had translated the report into Arabic, about transportation links, as you can see, including Gibraltar. This would be the idea behind this.
And then, returning back to Asia, we can take across to somewhere closer to home: The Bering Strait. Again, this is something that's been proposed for over 100 years, back in 1899, or the very late 1800s, the proposals were first being made on this. The distances aren't that great, it's not an engineering impossibility. A bridge would certainly present — it's very cold and you have those difficulties, but this isn't impossible. And with this type of connection, we really would have a worldwide, integrated transport network; and think about what it would mean, also politically, the ability to connect easily to Asia, with the ability for freight to travel more rapidly than by sea. And see Russia: You could see is easily, you could take a train there if you live in Alaska; no problem!
So this is a very optimistic map. This is a high-speed rail map of the U.S. and China, you can see they're about the same size in terms of the nation's continental U.S. Someone very generously in producing this map labeled the entire Acela route a "high-speed" rail line, which I think only Amtrak considers it high-speed rail [laughter] — it clearly isn't! We're not as densely populated as places in Europe, for example, or China, but that doesn't mean that it wouldn't make sense. Certainly the Northeast Corridor; this is heavily traveled zone, ridership has increased double digits over the past decade. This is a place where someone visiting the United States is sort of amazed that..., you know, Amtrak is such an embarrassment!
You know, and then you could build upon that; this would make sense, I think more for freight than for passenger use, although for shorter distances, like D.C. to New York is a perfect example, where if the train took an hour and a half for example, no one would bother flying. That's a convenient length for a high-speed rail trip.
What would it be like for the U.S. to be part of this? You know, connect to the Bering Strait? Imagine building new cities — like new cities, out in the mountain areas somewhere. An actually new city, not just sprawling on and building on haphazardly, but, hey! We've got water, we've got transportation, we've got power, we can actually make a nice, new city! We could do it!
And as part of this, another, maybe softer part of infrastructure is the water cycle. In terms of our relationship to the water cycle and our use of water, what happens with water? It evaporates from land and the oceans, it rains mostly back into the oceans, or on land; once it lands it goes in rivers out to the sea, and we've got potentials to intervene on these things. Most directly, desalination, taking water straight from the ocean. I'd given those figures earlier for the relatively low cost of providing coastal residents with desalinated water in California, surprisingly cheap, even with current technology; proposals dating back from the Kennedy administration to transfer water from Canada and Alaska, where it's just going off to the ocean and not really doing anything, and actually transferring into the Southwest, Western U.S. and all the way down into Mexico even.
And, really interesting research that's being done on the potential to create rain. We already do cloud seeding; this is a technique that's used to create rain, or to prevent rain. In the Beijing Olympics, China had used cloud seeding to cause it to rain outside of Beijing so the Olympics wouldn't be ruined by bad weather. But there's a lot more to learn about how cloud condensation nuclei are created, what causes clouds to form in the first place? Can we use ionization to help spark the formation of clouds and therefore rain? So our relationship to some of these things that just seem like natural resources just sitting around us, we can be a part of these things.
And continuing our trip down — oh, one thing I didn't exactly mention here is the Darién Gap: If you wanted to drive, say you wanted to visit a friend in Buenos Aires; let's say you wanted to drive down to Argentina — you can't. There's about a 20-mile stretch of road that's missing called the Darién Gap where the Pan-American Highway simply doesn't go through, it just ends. You cannot travel by vehicle to South America right now.
So these are some of the proposals in that region. One of these in particular I know is being discussed, the connection from Peru to Brazil. I don't know if this is the exact route that's in discussion right now, but this is something that Peru is interested in and that China has been interested helping to provide the financing for; and some other water proposals, both for navigation and for irrigation, helping to even out water imbalances.
If you added all of this up, I don't know if every one of these projects 100% makes sense, but think about the cost of actually building high infrastructure all around the world, it's absolutely tremendous; it's absolutely tremendous. So it brings us to the question again, two things, of financing and of intention. During the break, I was speaking with somebody about the U.S. role — the question had come up before about the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, why did the U.S. not join the AIIB? Was it out of fear of lax lending standards and the fact that the AIIB might lose money? That's something that's being talked about in the press now. But the primary response was a political one: Simply that it was a Chinese initiative and therefore the U.S. wasn't going to play second fiddle to China.
The fact of the matter is that trying to maintain supremacy by trying to hold other people back, really isn't a very good policy. It's really not. It's bad for you; it's bad for your soul, it's bad for your country. We shouldn't do that.
So in terms of how it's financing: One is country-to-country deals and investments. The example before, China giving credit, the country ends up buying equipment or contracting from China, etc., that's one thing. This is commonly done all around the world right now. I'd brought up the Japanese Import Export Bank earlier. The New Development Bank that's specifically created by the BRICS; the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, $100 billion currently, 57 nations involved; it's going to start lending out to projects this year. And other regional banks that can be created or that currently exist. Not the World Bank. The World Bank, it really doesn't fund things very much, and it creates such intensely strict conditionalities on its loans, and that's something that the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank for example, has said it will not do. It'll look at whether a project is creditworthy, but in terms of adding in conditionalities of other things, like trying to say, "you should really change your pension plan to make sure you can pay back this loan," — no, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is not going to do. They said, they'll give a loan for a project and then you pay us back for the project; we're not going to tell you how to run your whole economy to get the loan. If a project makes sense? Sure, we'll finance it. That's their outlook,
In terms of the U.S., there's plenty of work to do here. We had talked about this, everybody knows about that. The Bering Strait, this would be a really tremendous initiative, really exciting. It would also of course, require connections up to and through Alaska, up through Canada — you obviously have to get to the Bering Strait from here. Same thing with Russia: Russia doesn't currently have rail to reach the Bering Strait, because what would be the point if you can't cross it once you get there? So this would be an opportunity for collaboration.
I had shown a chart much earlier about the different types of power sources: wood, coal, oil, nuclear, and shown that the gap between what was anticipated by the Kennedy Administration and today's power use per capita, is about 50%, which is huge. Just imagine, if power had grown at that rate, how many more power plants would be needed in the U.S. right now? Or, imagine that we had never become a post-industrial, or increasingly less industrial nation. How much power would we need if we produced things in great quantities here? How much power would be required for a high-speed electric rail network? How much power would be required for desalination, to have a steady, secure source of water that's guaranteed into the future? What's the power requirement for this?
And how would developing future transform that? If we had — when we get fusion power and the ability to access great amounts of power is not such a limit as it is now, desalination and pumping will seem inexpensive. Our relationships to materials could change, the cost of processing ore right now which still predominantly uses coke as a — [remark from audience] Hmm? We don't process any ore here? Wow. Wow!
So, if we're building — imagine the steel required for rail, etc., etc., the material needs that would come from that, how are they going to be met? Fusion would transform our relationship to that. I'd like to think about that again, that'd be nice.
In terms of U.S. financing, here's four very basic ideas on this. First off, you may have heard about this, the Glass-Steagall Act was a Roosevelt-era law that made it possible for the banking system to, for one thing, not go bankrupt, and the other thing, play a useful role in the economy. Which means, banks make money by giving loans; that's the main way a commercial bank makes money, it serves a useful role. Money that's sitting idle is lent out to somebody else, who uses it to make an investment and then they pay it back. Normal banking.
The Glass-Steagall law prevented banks from mixing commercial banking with investment banking. So if you're a bank that gives loans, and does checking and savings accounts, you would be guaranteed by the Federal government, and you weren't allowed to buy stocks, you weren't allowed to make markets, you weren't allowed to get involved in insurance, you weren't allowed to gamble, basically. You had to make loans.
We need that law again, right now, so that banks are able to look for an ability to function as banks by getting loans out into the real economy instead of staying in the finance world, which is really what's happened. Since the 2007-2008 financial crisis of that time, which certainly hasn't ended, a tremendous amount of loan guarantees were given by the Federal government; it did not translate into increased lending! This money has stayed in the banking sector. So reintroducing this Glass-Steagall separation between commercial banking and investment banking would make it possible to use banks to help give loans to build these sorts of projects: Banks have a useful role to play.
The other thing is that we need Federal credit. The idea that we're going to finance a project by public-private partnerships, it won't happen: The money's not there and there's not much of an appetite for PPP unless you can get a pretty good return — like buying something that's already been built and just collecting the money from it.
The other thing is, putting this in context of a commitment to really moving into the future, you know, let's have a commitment to developing fusion energy, let's have a space program that's clear and defined, and we're actually going to achieve, and it's the vague sense of landing on an asteroid or something.
You contrast that, with — bring up China again: China which is going to the Moon, just launched another rocket with two taikonauts. If we have an overall mission for the future, that we're able to bring people into participating in, you say, "hey, my country's doing something great in the world. I'm happy to be participating in building this project so there'll be enough water for the next generations of people in say, California, or India, or wherever." That's something that you can be really happy about. So: Another different view of the world. Let me see if there's some discussion. I've said a lot of provocative things, that I imagine there'll be some thoughts about.
Q: China versus U.S. You have one major problem, in the United States, the land is not owned by the Federal government, it cannot do whatever it wants to do. In China, the government does whatever it wants to do, and there are no restraints on their ability to take land and [inaudible 42:15] if they wish. Here in the United States, we'd have a money problem. I doubt that the sacrifice would be worth it.
ROSS: The sacrifice of what?
Q: [follow-up] The sacrifice of power. In eminent domain you have to...
ROSS: You have to pay for it.
Q: You have to compensate...
ROSS: Well, I wasn't proposing that we adopt every policy of China and become a nation where the government owns all the land.
Q: You know, figures don't lie, but liars can figure. We have a growth in GDP, ok? Our 1% GDP is larger than China's 6%, since our GDP is larger, right?
ROSS: Yeah, that's why the other figure was the 700 million people not in poverty.
Q: What about the $20 trillion debt in the United States? A good chunk of our economy just goes to finance debt.
ROSS: Good question. It's true. A certain percentage of government spending goes to interest on debt. We can't not pay it. I mean, if aspects of it are legitimate sure; but Alexander Hamilton had this problem when the U.S. was created. There was a huge debt from the Revolutionary War. And some people were saying, "Aw, don't pay it. forget it about, we were in a war, people will understand." And Hamilton said, "No, no, no, no. No, we're going to pay this debt, and it will keep the credit rates low in the future." But the other thing he said is that debt can actually be useful, because if you are always making payments on it, that means that those debt instruments count as money. In other words, since Treasury bond, for example, everyone expects that they're going to be paid, they trade almost as if they were money.
So in Hamilton's day, he said, a benefit of this is that people will be able to trade debt certificates as a way of increasing the monetary supply. I don't know how relevant that is to today. But the big thing is, the debt we have already exists. The question is, are we going to try and reduce it by spending less money? Or, will be think about how we're going to create more productivity in the future? And the IMF looks to cutting expenses. The real approach really has to be, will this credit create more growth in the future that will pay for itself — possibly indirectly. That's the importance of Federal credit: When it's on a project by project basis, and you're relying on figuring out some way of getting income from the project directly to pay back the expense of building it, you're limited to certain kinds of projects. For example, flood control — how do you charge people for not having a flood? Yeah, you can set up a tax district. But it's not the sort of thing, where you charge people for taking a train trip. So, some of these things have to be on the level of a national investment, where you don't have to get the one-to-one payback on it.
But if we have more credit that's fine. If it makes more growth than it costs to make it happen... The other aspect of it is that, when you develop something new, the payback is incommensurate with the cost. There's a certain amount of expense that was involved in the financing the Apollo project going to the Moon. Chase Econometrics had been hired to do a cost-benefit analysis, and they came up with about a 10:1 return on investment on the Apollo project, because all the technologies that had to be developed to get to the Moon, they were now available to industry more broadly! And so people were able to produce things with better tolerances, they were able to produce things in a new ways. So they said it was a 10:1 return.
That leaves out the fact that it's not really a scalar relationship: The 10 that come back aren't the 1 that came before. So when we think about, if we're investing in — it's going to happen, we're going to make it happen, we're going to invest, we're going to get fusion power — we're going to look back and say, "Wow, that was the best however many dollars it cost" because the payback was incommensurable. It's a different kind of economy, a different kind of thing you get out of it. It's not scalar.
Q: We've had lectures from regional planners, giving their idea of the future, of what certain aspects we should be pushing and promoting; same things that you are pushing. They've broken up into various categories, green technologies, and energy, manufacturing, and transportation. There's a large lack in our political system to even look at these things any more. It's something we do need to do to bring to light, and I commend you for doing it. But we have to really, as the ASCE, as engineers, try to get our legislators to act in a positive way.
ROSS: Yeah, absolutely. And I'll give you one recent success on this, was the JASTA bill, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. It allows for foreign governments who finance terrorism on American soil to be sued in U.S. courts, which currently — basically it's about 9/11. The 9/11 victims' families had launched a suit, they had named Saudi officials and the course said, "no, those are Saudi officials, they're part of the government; you can't sue a government."
And so a bill was introduced in the Congress, passed the House and Senate unanimously, and Obama vetoed it, and the first veto override of his administration, and that came from a tremendous support from people calling in, making that happen; and it was something that wasn't really — it wasn't part of the Presidential debate. It was an issue that people took seriously and said, "let's make this happen." Infrastructure should be one of those things. If people would have informed demands, to make on things, then you can make it occur. Sometimes, you say, "do I choose A or B?" Well, if A or B isn't talking about whatever, then don't think about choosing A or B. How're you going to make it happen. Like you're saying: you have to go out to the legislators, and I think public outreach to help people understand what an economic proposal could be — I mean this proposal for example, this is something that my colleagues have been pushing for decades, really since the fall of the Soviet Union, the potential then opened up for, hey, we can really have worldwide cooperation on things now. We don't have to have a war, we don't have to have a threat of war. What could we do with this?
It hasn't really come to fruition, but that ongoing organizing, on this proposal — this is the second edition of a report that was first written back in the '90s of similar length. And our proposals at that time. And it's now the policy of 65 nations have joined the One Belt, One Road proposal of China. It's happening: these countries are doing it. They're buidling things. It's occurring. We could do it.
Q: Yes. I'd like to add that it's a well-known fact that the ACE is a big advocate of infrastructure in this nation. But I want to point out that I wanted to clarify that the ASCE estimate of U.S. infrastructure backlog is $3.6 trillion, rather than billion. In that sense, I say rebuild infrastructure so large and I don't where, I guess the gentlemen say the lands are private, but I don't know how the hell we built so much infrastructure on private lands — but we did! So therefore, anything is possible: Even the high-speed trains they could be built on the same lands that are built the slow trains. What's the difference?
Q: Maglev is an excellent technology, invented in the United States, but never built here.
ROSS: Yes. As a matter of fact, a couple of years ago, Japan actually came to D.C. and made the offer — Japan offered to finance half the cost of a maglev connection between D.C. and Baltimore. But it was turned down.
Q: Part of our problem is that Washington is basically freaking lawyers. [crosstalk] I'm only aware of one Congressman that's an engineer and that's Congressman McKinley from West Virginia.
Q: It's probably somebody in the forest right now, y'all are trying to make things happen. The interest is just not there, I hate to say that. We have to keep doing what we're doing, but the public is drawn to lawyers for whatever reason.
ROSS: Well, lawyers are doing politics.
Q: And maybe that's the point — engineers are not, and that's part of...
ROSS: Well, it's an opportunity — I'm a person, I'm not an engineer, but really, what I am I'm a political organizer at heart. So how are we going to make these things happen, and let's go badger people and make it happen. Let's recruit other people to understand the importance of it, and then make it occur. We've got these reports, hold events in the world. Helga Zepp-LaRouche wrote the main introduction to this, she's been in China three or four times over the past few years speaking at events there; events really, after the fall of the Soviet Union, events in the East bloc, in the West: I mean, this has just been years of organizing for this. It's just taking up a responsibility to say — frankly, if people's relationship to politics is once every four years voting for President and every two years for Congress, it just doesn't cut it! You just get a couple choices.
As opposed to what are you doing all year, are you injecting it into the discussion, bringing it up at events; are you setting up forums to bring people to? I mean, just brainstorm: There's a lot that can be done, then people understand, hey this stuff's really important, it's essential for the future, it's inspiring, and let's make it happen, like the JASTA override was made to happen by people who said "we're going to make it happen," and they made it happen.
Q: I want to add one perspective: I used to work for a company that developed the high-speed rail in France. And in Europe, engineers are respected like doctors. [laughter]
Moderator: Thank you very much. [applause]