A number of years ago in Cambridge, Mass., a young friend from Germany commented on the potholed and patched streets that surrounded us, as well as the uneven sidewalks and assorted other rough edges.
"It looks like a Third World country here," he said. "Apparently no one cares."
To him, it was amazing that the wealthy and well-educated residents of Cambridge would tolerate such a poor public environment. Yet in the United States, this is more the rule than the exception.
Occasional disasters focus attention on the problem -- for example, the near liquidation of New Orleans because of inadequate and poorly maintained levees -- but, in general, the state of disrepair is so common that we simply accept it.
The American Society of Civil Engineers, in its well-known Report Card for America's Infrastructure, gives the U.S. an overall grade of D and says there is a $2.2 trillion deficit -- the amount of money it would take in five years to bring the country's public works up to acceptable levels. Much of this estimate is for simple maintenance.
Now, asking a bunch of civil engineers about public-works spending is like asking the barber if you need a haircut. Still, the organization's work is impressive. It attempts a comprehensive assessment of needs in 10 categories, from aviation to wastewater.
You don't need an engineering degree to see that many U.S. roads, train lines, bridges, sewers and water systems are less spiffy than in other advanced countries. Some national systems, like the interstates, look pretty good. Local streets, bridges, sidewalks, train stations, water tunnels and the like seem to be in the worst shape.
To some extent, these cracks in our infrastructure -- or public works, to use the meatier and older term -- reflect the cracks in our government. Under the American system, which is based on the English model, authority is separated among not only federal, state and local, but among independent public authorities, as well as private utility companies.
City Hall may be nominally in charge of Main Street, but private companies for phone, gas, electric, cable and Internet service are the ones tearing up the street.
Another challenge is that states and localities, unlike the federal government, make a firm distinction between operating and capital expenditures. You can borrow money to build a road, but not to maintain it.
Then there is the American antigovernment predilection. We look at government as something outside ourselves, rather than a reflection of us. Politicians have become loath to spend any of their constituents' money on anything that makes a structure look good if it might be seen as a symbol of waste.
There are assorted remedies, although none are magic bullets.
Tom Downs, a former president of Amtrak and New Jersey transportation commissioner, said that one start would be to have a "depreciation account," as many businesses do. That way, government would see what needed to be funded.
Another way is to have annual reports on the status of highways, streets, utilities, schools, fire stations and so forth.
Al Appleton, a former commissioner of environmental protection and director of water and sewer systems in New York, said politicians and the press focus inordinately on the "head count" in government, without seeing the savings and efficiency that are gained through adequate staffing levels.
"You can't fight a war without an army," he said. "To do maintenance right, you need people."
Much of this is contrary to the public discussion of infrastructure. We see highway crews loafing, and jump to assumptions that all government is overstaffed. And our obsession with eliminating "pork" can get in the way of making sure that what we build is built right, and kept that way.
Rising standards would help. We should expect our streets to shine, and if they don't, we should hold the politicians responsible.
Alex Marshall is a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association in New York and author of the forthcoming, "The Surprising Design of Market Economies." This article was distributed by Bloomberg News.