“The tyranny of the ribbon” is America’s infrastructure problem

American Crumbling Infrastructure

Look at this chart, courtesy of here:

American Bridges With Structural Problems

That’s terrifying, no?

Now look at this chart, courtesy of the same place:

American Infrastructure Spending

Now keep that “$16.5 billion” figure in your head and look at this third chart:

American Infrastructure Spending Gap


The “tyranny of the ribbon” is a basic idea: we spend a lot of money on expansion and new projects because, in general, the human condition values shiny, new things as opposed to “updating old things.” Politicians like the new projects because they get the picture with the big scissors and the ribbon, and that makes them look “forward-thinking” or “progressive” or whatever to voters. It’s detailed here.

(This is the same reason a lot of marketing teams chase things like “social engagement” and “media impressions,” even though those things don’t necessarily mean anything in terms of driving actual revenue.)

Even though the idea of maintenance is a good idea — apparently every dollar you spend right now to maintain a bridge/road can save between $4-$10 later to fix it — it’s not sexy.

That explains why John Oliver did this whole bit, which is already north of 1.3 million views on YouTube:

Steve Kroft did a slightly more hard-hitting version of this story on 60 Minutes back in 2013:

Some of this issue is that areas don’t know what to do with certain roads, as you see with stretches of Interstate 81. Some (maybe most) of the issue is money. But a lot of this comes back to basic human psychology: to woo voters, local officials need to be seen as doing sexy, new, flashy, interesting, fun things — not fixing up old roads, which is at best a B23 story in a local newspaper. A groundbreaking, however, is an A1 story — and even moreso if the rich guy involved looks like a fucking Batman villian:

Zigi Wilf Groundbreaking

When you see a bridge crumbling near your house, then, explain to your friends and family that a large part of the reason that’s happening is “the tyranny of the ribbon.”

Ted Bauer