Human infrastructure is a chance to re-create

Let's enjoy entertainment, but we shouldn't neglect what investment can produce

Americans spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on entertainment. Shouldn’t we invest at least that much in human infrastructure? (Photo by Layton Diament on Unsplash)

At about this point each September, you begin to accept, however grudgingly, that summer really is over. So you think back to some of those golden hours, so recent that you can almost feel the sun’s heat on your skin even now, as we begin to turn our attention to the tasks of autumn.

Like the day last month that my wife and I lazily strolled along a dock on the eastern seaboard, deeply inhaling the salt air as we listened to sail rigging clanking in the breeze. We were there for a day on a friend’s antique sloop and an evening with plenty of oysters on the half shell and steamed mussels. We set aside everything else that day for recreation.

Those moments in the sun reminded us of both our own privilege and more broadly of America’s wealth. Aside from a small fishing fleet on one side of the harbor, everything else we could see at that moment was there for recreation — the huge yacht in the harbor, the power cruisers, the dozens of big sailboats, the seafood joint where we got that shellfish, and even many of the waterfront homes. They’re seasonal luxuries, among the myriad ways we entertain ourselves.

Americans spend more than $424 billion a year on entertainment.1 That’s a lot; for a sense of scale, consider that it’s more than the gross domestic product of the United Arab Emirates, which is home to the world’s biggest buildings. And that doesn’t count the billions more spent on the creation of that entertainment, a category that would include everything from the payroll at the shipyards where those boats were built to the lumber mills that turned out the decking for those vacation homes.

That entertainment pricetag for American households amounts to a bit less than 2 percent of this year’s GDP, the measure of the total U.S. economy.2 I’m not here to complain about it. In fact, we all might agree that it’s a good thing to invest in entertainment and recreation.

Experts in both physiology and psychology are clear on the value of recreation. It literally enables us to re-create ourselves. Physical activity strengthens our muscles and our heart, makes our mind more alert and helps us fight off disease, including cancer.3 Non-physical recreation is useful, too — although Americans’ favorite recreational activity, watching television, is as often harmful to our well-being as it is helpful.

(I can’t leave that point without noting that more than one academic study has confirmed that watching Fox News is harmful to your mental capacity: Fox viewers not only know less about science and society than people who watch other networks, but also are dumber than people who avoid the news altogether.4 So if Tucker Carlson’s show is your idea of a recreational activity, you need a new hobby.)

To be clear: My goal here isn’t to suggest that we ought to spend less on recreation. It’s to note that by understanding the pricetag of our leisure pursuits, we might better grasp the scale of other draws on our finances.

Most notably: Right now, Congress is grappling with what to do with President Joe Biden’s proposal to spend $3.5 trillion over the next 10 years on so-called human infrastructure — the underlying foundation of our society, or programs that sustain our families. Biden is facing pushback from Republicans and a few conservative Democrats who say that we can’t afford that spending.

Of course, most of those opponents of deficit spending now were advocates of it quite recently, when Congress eagerly approved huge tax cuts pushed by former President Donald Trump in 2017 that primarily benefited corporations and more wealthy Americans. By some estimates, those Trump-era tax cuts will cost $5.5 trillion by 2029, which could make him the biggest-spending one-term president in history.5

By that measure, Biden’s human infrastructure proposal doesn’t sound so huge, does it? To pay for the package, the president would pull back some of those Trump-era tax cuts, which haven’t led to the re-investment in the economy that advocates said they would.

Still, $3.5 trillion is a lot of money. But let’s be clear of what it represents: Over the same timeframe, it’s almost one-fifth less than what we spend on entertainment and recreation.

What would we get in return for that spending? Universal pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds. Childcare for working families. Free community college for all. Massive investment in clean energy, to begin to turn the corner on the global warming that threatens our survival. Easier access to credit for small businesses. Tax cuts for families with incomes below $400,000 a year.

And more: Lower prescription drug costs. More aid for historically black colleges and universities and increased Pell grants for all eligible college students. More support for programs aiding native Americans and veterans. Investments in transportation, technology, research and economic development.6

Look at that list. Spending about $350 billion a year over the next decade to bring that to reality sounds to me like a bargain. I’d even forego some of the money I spend on my leisure time to make that happen.

But the best estimates suggest this spending would enhance, not threaten, the financial well-being of American families. It wouldn’t erase jobs in the boatyards and lumber mills; in fact, it would create millions of jobs. It wouldn’t raise my taxes, because I’m not in that higher-income tier, nor am I one of the 55 major corporations that avoided paying a dime in federal taxes last year.7 In fact, it wouldn’t even cost me what I spent on that bowl of steamed mussels and platter of oysters — the consumption of which, I must say, was quite helpful to my mental health.

But here’s what investment in the human infrastructure of the country would do: It would help re-create some of what we have traditionally valued most about being American, which is the blessing of living in a stable, egalitarian society dominated by a strong middle class, with good jobs for those willing to work, and with a fair shot at economic progress for you and your kids. The clear task of autumn for Congress is to make all that re-creation possible. That would take away the sting of another summer gone.


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Dispatches from our common ground *

Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.

This week, we share dispatches from:

  • Casper, Wyo. (Casper Star-Tribune,

  • Louisville, Ky. (Louisville Courier Journal,

  • Burlington, Vt. (Seven Days,

  • Greenville, S.C. (The Greenville News,

  • Concord, N.H. (New Hampshire Bulletin,

NOTE: The complete “Viewed from Upstate” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!

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Climate-fueled wildfires are climbing mountains

As human-caused climate change worsens the wildfire season year by year in the Rocky Mountains, scientists have reported a new element of the crisis: fires are climbing higher up the mountains, where they’re more likely to emerge as so-called “crown fires” — at the tops of trees, where fire can burn hotter and spread faster by drawing more oxygen. Mountaintops have traditionally served as natural barriers restricting fires’ range, reports Nicole Pollack in the Casper Star-Tribune. Now, increasingly combustible high-elevation forests mean wildfires can summit mountains and surmount those former boundaries.


OPINION: “You don’t get to assault me with COVID in the name of freedom”

Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, an Indiana University professor, writes in the Louisville Courier-Journal that society shouldn’t tolerate those who claim freedom from the coronavirus protocols that would protect their community and then expect the community to care for them when they get sick. “Yes, you have the right to not get vaccinated,” she writes. “But, if you or your family gets sick from that choice… (l)eave our ICU beds available for those who have been doing their duty and choose to behave as part of a socially responsible community of care.”


Resolution on Israel BDS divides Burlington

After a heated debate, the City Council in Burlington sent a resolution back to committee that would have endorsed a resolution backing a boycott of Israel. The dispute over BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) has divided many usual political allies nationwide, with some saying it calls on Israel to uphold its values and give equal rights to Palestinian citizens and others saying it amounts to an attack on the existence of the Jewish state. “The issue’s divisiveness was on full display,” writes Courtney Lamdin in Seven Days, the nonprofit news organization serving Vermont.


Governor defends response to coronavirus

As the number of children hospitalized with Covid-19 in South Carolina rises — including two on life support — Gov. Henry McMaster told the The Greenville News that he was satisfied with the state’s response to the crisis. “I think it’s working well,” he said.


State to weigh repeal of “divisive concepts” law

In its resolution approving a state budget last year, the New Hampshire Legislature voted to ban schools from teaching such concepts as racial equity and white privilege — a response to the so-called critical race theory controversy that has drawn the attention of right-wing media. Now state legislators are being asked to pull back from that stance. “Politicians shouldn’t be telling teachers what to do,” State Rep. Manny Espitia told the New Hampshire Bulletin.

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ENDNOTE 09.18.21

Accepting the change of season

The sweet fruit of summer — in these parts, that includes plums and peaches and melons, not to mention sweet corn — is making way on rural produce stands for what yields longer or comes later, meaning we still have lots of squash and tomatoes and so much more to enjoy. But some of us find it hard to make the transition. So I’ve lately bought some late-season fruit that didn’t stand up to time, by which I mean it isn’t very good.

For much of my life, I’ve been grumpy in autumn, not only because I love the summer sun but also because my birthday comes in October, and the chill of autumn reminds me that another year has past. It’s only in recent years that I’ve come to look forward to fall, with its rich colors and cooler nights for sleeping, and with the knowledge that change presents opportunity. It must have something to do with a rising awareness of life’s richness in every season, and with more gratitude for what surely lies ahead. Some of us, I guess, mature more slowly than others. I’m just grateful to be getting there, however belatedly.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for joining me on our common ground*, this America.

-Rex Smith


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