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Recent Intensification of the American Infrastructure

By Frank W. Elwell

In this paper I will briefly examine the growth of the infrastructure in American society over the last 20 years or so, and sketch out some of the ways these changes have affected the rest of the sociocultural system. One way to describe the character and size of productive activities within a nation state is through the Gross Domestic Product or GDP. GDP is the broadest measure of the productivity (or "health") of an economy. It is defined as the market value of goods and services produced within a country. Table 1 displays the US GDP for selected years from 1987 to 2001. In 1987, the Gross Domestic Product of the U.S. was 4.7 trillion dollars. In 2001 the GDP stood at slightly over 10 trillion dollars. This represents more than a doubling in the size of GDP in just 13 years, an increase of over 5 trillion dollars (both measures are in 2001 dollars, inflation therefore is not a factor).

Table 1: GDP by Industry for Selected Years 1987-2001







Gross Domestic Product
(in millions of current dollars)












Private Industry (Percent GDP)






Agriculture, forestry, and fishing
























Transportation and public utilities






Wholesale trade






Retail trade






Finance, insurance, and real estate


















Government (Percent GDP)






Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. Department of Commerce.

          The mode of production in hyperindustrial societies grows exponentially. The annual growth rate of the GDP for American society has averaged around 4 to 6 percent for years. But the distinguishing characteristic of hyperindustrial society is not the exponential growth rate. Such growth rates are characteristic of industrial societies as well. What is really novel about hyperindustrial society is the level of its economic base. Exponential growth applied to an economy already this massive produces tremendous real growth.[1] It took over one hundred years of increasingly intensive industrialization to achieve a GDP of just under 5 trillion. It took only an additional fourteen years of further intensification to achieve the next 5 trillion. If, as Harris claims, the mode of production is one of the primary factors behind change in sociocultural systems, then this growth should be causing considerable turmoil in other parts of the sociocultural system. As we will see, it is.[2]

Table 1 also displays the percent of GDP accounted for by private and government industries, as well as a breakdown by industry type. As can be seen, private industry has grown from producing 86 percent of all the goods and services in the nation, to 87 percent. This is not an insignificant gain when talking an economy of 10 trillion dollars. Government at all levels--local, state and federal--is the mirror image of this, losing almost 1 percent of GDP over the fourteen year span. This is perhaps due to all of the "privatization" initiatives taken during the time period in schools, prisons, medicine, and other government services.

Also displayed in the table are two industries that have gained significantly: "Finance, insurance and real estate," and "Services." The first category is self-explanatory, the big items within this group include depository institutions (banks and savings and loans), real estate companies, insurance carriers, and security and commodities brokers. The service category includes personal services, auto repair and services, motion pictures, health, and education.

The big loser, in relative terms, is manufacturing, going from 18.7 percent of GDP to 14.1 percent in 2001. However, it is too soon to be writing of the demise of American manufacturing. While this sector has lost in terms of the percent of GDP in the US, it has actually grown in real dollar terms, going from $888,592,000,000 in 1987 to 1,422,990,000,000 in 2001, a gain of 60 percent. Manufacturing is a smaller percentage of GDP in 2001 because GDP more than doubled in size in the same time period.[3] Manufacturing, both in terms of product and employment, remains an integral part of hyperindustrial economy.[4] The term "hyperindustrial" recognizes that the economy is dynamic and changing, services, information and finance are an increasingly important part of the economy. However, there are limits to this development, an agricultural, mining, and manufacturing base are all essential components of a hyperindustrial economy.

          Population is the second infrastructural factor that Harris posits will have profound effects on the rest of the sociocultural system. Table 2 displays the population history of the U.S. for each census year from 1790 to 2000. It also displays the actual numerical increase for each period, the rate of the increase for each decade, the percent of the population that is urban, and the density or the number of people per square mile. Several interesting facts are displayed in the table. First, note that although the actual rate of increase is quite large in the period from1790 to 1870, the numerical increase in population for each decade remains in single digits (in millions). The rate of increase actually peaks with the initial wave of industrialization during the 1850s and 60s, though the numerical increase begins to grow rapidly shortly after. Since the 1860s the rate of increase has declined dramatically, from the peak of 35.9 percent, down to the last completed decade of 1990 to 2000 of only 13.2 percent. But note the actual numerical increase for this same time period.

Table 2: U.S. Population, 1790-2000

Census Year

Total Population


Increase      %

Urban      %

Density (Persons per sq. mi.)





































































































































Source:, accessed 6/3/2004 at

           Like the economy (or the lily), the population level is quite substantial by 1880. Ever-smaller growth rates produce ever-larger effects. For example, despite the fact that the rate of increase from 1990 to 2000 was only 13.2 percent, the actual numerical increase in population for that decade (32,712,033 people added) was greater than the total population level of the U.S. in 1860 (31,443,321). These 32 million additional people in the 1990s all have to be housed, clothed, fed, socialized, loved, policed, and provided a variety of services. Again, it is not exponential growth of population that distinguishes hyperindustrial society; it is the rapidity of real physical growth. 

          There are three factors that determine population level: fertility, mortality, and migration. As a nation, U.S. fertility has declined with industrialization. Part of the decline in fertility is due to a postponement of marriage and children as young women attend college or enter the workforce, and young couples take time to establish themselves economically. The median age at first birth for U.S. women has climbed from 21.8 years in 1960 (the tail end of the baby boom) to 24.5 years in 1999 (Kent and Mather, 2002, pp. 6-7). This means such women have fewer years to have children once they start. A second reason behind the declining fertility rate is the ready availability of contraceptives, making it easier for women to control their fertility.

          While fertility rates have declined in the U.S. since the 1960s, they are somewhat higher than the fertility rates of other industrial societies. The average fertility rate of more developed countries is 1.6 children born per woman, which is below replacement level. In the U.S. in 2002, the fertility rate was 2.1 (Kent and Mather, 2002, p. 8). One reason why the fertility rate in the U.S. is somewhat higher than other industrial nations might be that the U.S. makes it easier than other nations for women to combine work and family. Such factors as higher employment rates in the U.S., more affordable housing and other commodities may make slightly larger families more affordable (Kent and Mather, 2002, p. 8). 

          A large part of the reason for the higher U.S. rate is that minorities have a somewhat higher fertility rate. While racial and ethnic minorities account for 31 percent of the population, they accounted for 42 percent of the births in 2001 (Kent and Mather, 2002, p. 10). Kent and Mather attribute the difference in fertility to lower educational attainment for most minorities, and recent immigration on the part of Hispanics. Much of U.S. population growth, at least since the 1980s, has been fueled by legal and illegal immigration. "Between July 1, 2000 and July 1, 2001, the U.S. population grew by nearly 2.7 million people: 1.6 million from the excess of births over deaths, and 1.1 million from net international migration. …Natural increase accounted for about 60 percent of the growth, while net international migration contributed nearly 40 percent" (Kent and Mather, 2002, p. 6). Gauging the contribution of immigration to U.S. population growth by just looking at net migration is probably misleading. Immigrants tend to be in their prime child bearing years. They come to the U.S. to seek work and to establish a family. Many, particularly Hispanics, come from countries where families tend to be larger (Kent and Mather, 2002, p. 10). As a result, immigrants contribute to population growth through their fertility as well, about one in five babies born in the U.S. in 2000 was to a foreign born mother (Kent and Mather, p. 19).

          More immigrants are attracted to the U.S. than any other nation. Why such a high rate of immigration? A major part of the pull to the U.S. lies in perceived economic opportunity. Population level and rate of growth, of course, are intimately related to economic growth. Population growth means more available workers, more consumers, and thus a growing Gross Domestic Product. In fact, it is estimated that population growth alone accounts for over half of all recent economic growth in the United States[5] (Miller, 2004, p. 202). Not only does population growth account for a significant part of the growth in Gross National Product, but GNP per capita as well.

          Another reason for the high level of immigration in the U.S. is the fairly liberal immigration laws, at least compared to many other industrial nations. There are many reasons for these liberal immigration laws. Founded as the U.S. was by immigrant groups there is some national pride in the value and tradition of being a society open to the politically and economically repressed--though this is tempered by our distrust of foreigners as well as certain racial and ethnic prejudices. A second factor behind our liberal immigration laws lies in the interests of businesses that have an interest in encouraging skilled professions as well as adding to the general labor pool. Finally, there are other groups who have an interest in liberal immigration laws, such as the Democratic Party who often get the vote when immigrants become citizens, recently naturalized citizens who want to allow their family and compatriots access, and the wealthy who have a need for servants and nannies.  In addition, because of geography (including a southern border with few natural barriers) and closeness to Latin America, as well as all of the interest groups listed above, the U.S. has a high amount of illegal immigration as well.

          Both legal and illegal immigration fluctuates with political and economic conditions. While the U.S. has a political history of openness to immigration, there is also an undercurrent of nativism. High economic growth rates and the success of businesses and others lobbying governments to liberalize immigration of both types can lead to increases in immigration. Political oppression or poor economic conditions in the rest of the world (particularly in Latin America) also increase the immigration rates.

          Immigration affects the ethnic and racial makeup of a population. "Social scientists have studied the effects of immigration on wages, tax revenues, government expenditures, and other social and economic features of American life and have come to varying and sometimes contradictory conclusions. Some see the current immigrants as adding to the public burden by using more public services than they pay for in taxes. Immigrants, for example, burden public schools with non-English-speaking children, hold down wages for U.S.-born residents, and add to the costs of public health and other services. Others argue that the benefits of immigration outweigh the burdens: They point out that, for example, immigrants take jobs others do not want, pay taxes, and inject vitality and richness into American society" (Kent and Mather, 2002, pp. 24-25).

          Population growth--net fertility and immigration--also affects the age and sex structure of the population. The age and sex structure of the U.S. in 1900 was pyramid like, with a large youthful population at the base and each succeeding cohort being a little smaller, leading to a small elderly population at the top of the pyramid. Because of changing mortality, fertility, and immigration rates throughout the century this pyramid has become somewhat distorted, with a bulge of baby boomers  now in late middle age near the top of the pyramid, slightly smaller cohorts just under this group (the baby bust), but fairly substantial younger cohorts. Because both fertility and immigration are higher in the U.S. than other developed countries, it has a much younger base than other industrial countries.

          The age and sex structure of a population affects life chances as well as future population and economic growth. Kent and Mather (2002) summarize one cohort theory:

The relative size of a cohort is important because it determines the number of people who are competing for the same jobs, promotions, federal entitlements, and other limited resources. Economist Richard Easterlin theorized that people born into a cohort that is smaller than the preceding one would encounter less competition for jobs and earn higher incomes, which would encourage them to marry earlier and have more children. This might explain why Americans born in the 1930s, when fertility was relatively low, produced the baby boom by marrying and starting families at younger ages than their parents or even their older siblings. People born into a cohort that is substantially larger than the preceding one would encounter more job competition and lower relative wages, causing them to delay marriage and childbearing. The relative cohort theory might explain the baby boomers' marked postponement of marriage and childbearing, which led to plummeting fertility rates in the mid-1970s (p. 27). [6]

Because the U.S. has a much younger age profile than other industrial nations it will continue to grow, particularly if fertility rates remain stable and immigration continues at its present levels. And this will lead to economic growth. But the age and sex structure of a population is not simply related to population and economic growth; it often has impact upon social structures as well.

          One example of how the age and sex structure affects other parts of the sociocultural system is found in the general aging of the American population. First begun with the industrial revolution and the decline of infant mortality, the aging of the population has had dramatic affect on U.S. government and politics. The 1930s saw the passage of the Social Security Act specifically designed to entice many older workers out of the workforce. The creation of Medicare in the 1960s and the focus of the Welfare State on the income and medical needs of the elderly since that time can be directly attributed to their growing numbers as well as their high voting participation rates.

          Another well-known example is the baby boom phenomenon in the U.S. that occurred from 1947 through about 1963. The baby boom has often been likened to a "pig in a python." Each year from 1947 through 1957 and additional 1 million babies were born than the previous year. As the huge age cohort advanced through first elementary schools, then secondary schools and then colleges, it caused tremendous growth and disruption. The cohort became the center of attention of the culture, the focus of the market place. In college it burst the seams, engaging in massive protests against the war in Vietnam, against the university, and against the political and economic system. Pouring out of the colleges beginning in the early 1970s, the cohort faced increasingly stiff competition in the job market. As stated above, this competition forced them to delay marriage and children. As the cohort ages, the market place continues to pander to its wants and needs—yuppies, exercise, dieting, Viagra. As the cohort begins to reach retirement age (beginning in about 2010) it will place a tremendous strain on the social security system.[7]

            Two final population characteristics of note about hyperindustrial America are (1) growth rates are uneven around the country due to internal and international migration and uneven economic development; and (2) population density is rising and the country is becoming more urban. Economic development often attracts domestic and international migration. Migrants tend to be young and have interest in establishing families. This population growth, of course, stimulates further economic growth. States in the South and the West are growing faster than Midwestern and Northern states (Kent and Mather, 2002, p. 33), the fastest growing include California, Texas, and Florida. Other states are experiencing much slower growth or even population decline. Table 2 also displays the increasing urbanization and density within the country. About 80 percent of the U.S. population in 2000 lives in urban areas, twice the percentage than at the end of the last century. Density has almost doubled between 1950 and 2000 going from 43 to about 80 people per square mile.

          Such is a quick sketch of the infrastructure—the mode of production and population—of American hyperindustrial society. According to Harris (echoing others), both production and population are key components of the sociocultural system; they are the way a society fits into its environment, the way a society ensures its own survival. Any widespread institutional structures (say, family, educational system, or government) and values and ideologies (Christianity, liberalism) must be consistent with this infrastructure, must be compatible with the way people go about exploiting their environment to make a living. As systems theorists (and ecologists) are fond of telling us, you can't do one thing. Both economic intensification and population growth are interrelated and have independent and combined effects on the rest of the sociocultural system. Economic growth per capita has manifest and latent functions of promoting the arts, producing entertainments, and providing comforts for many individuals and for society as a whole. It is through economic growth that we have funded advances in science, spread education and literacy, and enabled many to partake in the good life. Population growth has led not only to economic growth but also to technological development, the diversity of our culture and our increasingly urban lifestyle.

          But what are the dysfunctions of infrastructural intensification? An extensive examination of the dysfunctions of population and economic intensification would include the following hypotheses:

·         Growth in population and production are based on a finite environment. There are limits to the amount of depletion and pollution that can be tolerated by the natural environment. While the emphasis on GDP expansion in the U.S. is gradually shifting away from manufactured goods and toward financial and service categories, the base of all economic activity is still (and must necessarily remain) resource extraction, agriculture, and the production of physical goods.

·         The growth and the creative destruction of industry as well as the growth and decline of population create disruption in the life of the community. Uneven growth is especially disruptive. Communities must expand and contract employment, schools, water and sewer lines, roads, and other community facilities to respond to the changes brought about by such a dynamic infrastructure.

·         The need for individual and family mobility because of the ever changing needs of the economy have personal costs as well. Such transients are unlikely to put down deep roots, unlikely to join civic organizations, make neighborhood ties, or identify closely with place. Geographical mobility has placed great stress on extended families. With dual career families becoming increasingly common, it is creating increasing stress on nuclear families as well.

·         The overall expansion of the economy and growth in population are among the primary causes of the growth and centralization of public and private bureaucracy. This has put inordinate economic, political, and social power and authority into the hands of a few at the top of these organizations. This shift in power and authority was first identified by Mills and has become even more pronounced since his time.

·         The expansion of industrial capitalism has led to the commodification of social life. More and more of the goods and services which used to be supplied by family or communities are increasingly being integrated into the market economy (or the "big bazaar" of Mills). The pervasive exposure to advertising has created a consumer culture based on comfort, consumption, and instant gratification.

·         Another consequence of the economic expansion is the turmoil created in the U.S. occupational structure. The constant churning of the economy has meant the disruption of lives through unemployment, the loss of skills by many, and the growing dependence of the middle class on corporate and bureaucratic organization for their livelihood.[8]

·         All of these structural changes—disruption of community, growth in bureaucracy, commodification, and changes in occupational structure (particularly the detailed division of labor)—have contributed to the rationalization of social life.

·         A final dysfunction of the incredible economic expansion and growing population is a widening inequality both within the nation as well as between nations.

Harris’s “primacy of the infrastructure” in explaining sociocultural stability and change is a very viable research strategy.


[1] Consider the lily. A lily seed from space lands in a farmer's pond. It sprouts a flower that doubles in size every day. It takes 19 days for the lily to cover half the pond. How many days till it covers the whole pond? This, of course, is a riddle of exponential growth. When something grows exponentially, actual physical growth depends not only on the rate of change but also the level or size it has already attained. In the case of the lily, the rate of change is 100% per day. If it takes 19 days to cover half the pond, it will only take an additional day to cover the other half.


[2] The growth of GDP since World War II has simply been phenomenal. In 1946 the Gross Domestic Product of the U.S. totaled 222.3 billion dollars, or 1.6 trillion in constant 2000 dollars. By 2000 U.S. GDP stood at 9.8 trillion, an economy producing six times the value of goods and services.


[3] The number of workers in manufacturing occupations has only increased slightly during this time, so the rise in product must in large part be a result of increasing productivity of the American worker. This is achieved through the application of technology, squeezing wages, tighter organization and monitoring of the workforce, and increasing the detailed division of labor.


[4] Why hasn't American manufacturing growth kept pace with the other sectors of the economy? Perhaps the major reason is increasing imports of manufactured goods from abroad, and increasing competition from other nations in export markets as well, or globalization. Of the major sectors of the economy, manufacturing and agriculture are perhaps the most susceptible to competition from other nations. Also, American manufacturing corporations--in search of lower labor costs and more "favorable" environmental, tax, and worker safety laws--are locating more of their operations overseas. While some services can be "out-sourced" or be provided from anywhere through fiber optic lines or satellite, many services rely heavily on language, culture and/or geographic location. Again, manufacturing is not so restricted.


[5] According to Miller there are two other factors responsible for economic growth. The first is "total capital" (physical capital such as tools and machines and human capital or the amount of knowledge gained from research and education) which he estimates accounts for one third of the growth rate in per capita income. The other factor is an increase in productivity that Miller believes is responsible for the remaining portion of economic growth.


[6] You should note that this theory is straight out of Malthus, with its cost/benefit analysis based on the competition for resources affecting birth rates. It is therefore highly compatible with Harris’s Cultural Materialism


[7]  An investment tip for the coming decades: hospitals, nursing homes, mortuaries, and cemeteries.


[8] The growing dependence of the middle class on bureaucracies, of course, was also a theme of C. Wright Mills.


For a more extensive discussion of Harris’s theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell.  Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.

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