“Many people in the states would be surprised to hear that rural broadband no longer matters,” said Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Mr Biden at the White House. “We believe the people of Jackson, Miss., Might be surprised to hear that repairing this water system is not considered infrastructure. We believe that the people of Texas might disagree with the idea that the electrical grid is not infrastructure that has to be built to be resilient for the 21st century. “
White House officials said much of Mr Biden’s plan reflected the reality that infrastructure had taken on a broader meaning as the nature of the work changed, focusing less on factories and shipping of goods and more on creating and focus on the sale of services.
Other economists support the idea that the definition has changed.
Dan Sichel, an economics professor at Wellesley College and a former Federal Reserve research officer, said it might be helpful to think of infrastructure as a series of concentric circles: a basic inner band of roads and bridges, a larger social ring of schools and hospitals, then a digital layer with things like cloud computing. There could also be an intangible layer, such as open source software or weather data.
“It’s definitely an amorphous concept,” he said, but basically, “we mean important economic assets that support and enable economic activity.”
The economy has developed further since the 1950s: in the past, manufacturers employed around a third of the workforce, today they only count 8.5 percent of jobs in the United States. As the economy has changed, it is important that our definitions be updated, said Sichel.
The debate about the importance of infrastructure is not new. In the New Deal-era Tennessee Valley Authority days, scholars and policymakers argued over whether universal access to electricity was necessary for public infrastructure, said Shane M. Greenstein, an economist at Harvard Business School current research focuses on broadband.
“Washington has an attention span of several weeks and this debate is a century old,” he said. Nowadays, he added, it’s about digital access instead of clean water and electricity.