“Many people in the states would be surprised to hear that broadband for rural areas no longer counts,” said Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Mr. Biden in the White House. “We think that the people in Jackson, Miss., might be surprised to hear that fixing that water system doesn’t count as infrastructure. We think the people of Texas might disagree with the idea that the electric grid isn’t infrastructure that needs to be built with resilience for the 21st century.”
White House officials said that much of Mr. Biden’s plan reflected the reality that infrastructure had taken on a broader meaning as the nature of work changes, focusing less on factories and shipping goods and more on creating and selling services.
Other economists back the idea that the definition has changed.
Dan Sichel, an economics professor at Wellesley College and a former Federal Reserve research official, said it could be helpful to think of what comprises infrastructure as a series of concentric circles: a basic inner band made up of roads and bridges, a larger social ring of schools and hospitals, then a digital layer including things like cloud computing. There could also be an intangible layer, like open-source software or weather data.
“It is definitely an amorphous concept,” he said, but basically “we mean key economic assets that support and enable economic activity.”
The economy has evolved since the 1950s: Manufacturers used to employ about a third of the work force but now count for just 8.5 percent of jobs in the United States. Because the economy has changed, it is important that our definitions are updated, Mr. Sichel said.
The debate over the meaning of infrastructure is not new. In the days of the New Deal-era Tennessee Valley Authority, academics and policymakers sparred over whether universal access to electricity was necessary public infrastructure, said Shane M. Greenstein, an economist at Harvard Business School whose recent research focuses on broadband.
“Washington has an attention span of several weeks, and this debate is a century old,” he said. These days, he added, it is about digital access instead of clean water and power.