November 25, 2008
Not a Moment Too Soon
By BOB HERBERT
It looks as if the U.S. is about to have a president, at long last, who gets it when it comes to jobs.
There doesn’t appear to be anything faint-hearted about Barack Obama’s plans to stimulate the economy, which hasn’t come this close to flat-lining since the 1930s. The president-elect’s recovery plan emphasizes job creation, and the path to that end winds through the nation’s long-neglected infrastructure.
Some of us have been beating that drum for years.
In a radio address on Saturday, Mr. Obama described his plan as follows:
“It will be a two-year, nationwide effort to jump-start job creation in America and lay the foundation for a strong and growing economy.
“We’ll put people back to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, modernizing schools that are failing our children and building wind farms and solar panels, fuel-efficient cars and the alternative energy technologies that can free us from our dependence on foreign oil and keep our economy competitive in the years ahead.”
The message is many years overdue. The hope is that it hasn’t come too late.
The idea that the nation had all but stopped investing in its infrastructure, and that officials in Washington have ignored the crucial role of job creation as the cornerstone of a thriving economy is beyond mind-boggling. It’s impossible to understand.
Impossible, that is, until you realize that bandits don’t waste time repairing a building that they’re looting.
The question now is whether the nation, in the midst of a full-blown economic emergency, can keep its cool and be smart as it marshals billions of public dollars for a new infrastructure initiative. It won’t be helpful to have sparkling new bridges to nowhere being built from coast to coast.
The smartest step when it comes to infrastructure would be for the new administration to follow through on the president-elect’s campaign promise to create a national infrastructure bank that would not just raise money and invest in the nation’s infrastructure, but would also bring a measure of coherence to the myriad projects that need to go forward.
One of the reasons the U.S. is in such deep trouble is that it has stopped being smart — turning its back on excellence, sophistication and long-term planning — in its public policies and corporate behavior. We’ve seen it in Iraq, in New Orleans, in the fiscal policies of the Bush administration, in the scandalous neglect of public education, in the financial sector meltdown, the auto industry and on and on. We’ve lionized dimwits. And now we’re paying the price.
If we’re going to rebuild the nation, with the hope of putting millions to work in the process, we should do it in the way that makes the most sense and brings the biggest bang for our megabucks.
Right now infrastructure projects go forward willy-nilly. They are often financed haphazardly and are subjected to the worst kinds of political influence.
Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut is sponsoring a bill that would create an infrastructure bank with a bipartisan board of directors and a chief executive to be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
The board would streamline the process of reviewing and signing off on major infrastructure proposals. It would determine the value to the public of each project — and its environmental impact. It would provide federal investment capital for approved projects and use that money to leverage private investment.
“Our major economic competitors in the 21st century are spending seven, eight, nine percent of their gross domestic product on infrastructure,” said Senator Dodd. “We’re spending almost nothing at all.”
The U.S. is moving from a period in which leaders spent money on wars and on lavish tax cuts for the rich, but not on investments in the nation’s future. That era of breathtaking irresponsibility must come to an end. Which means that now, with so much federal money soon to be available for infrastructure projects, it’s crucially important to spend the money as wisely as possible.
Investment in infrastructure right now is vital for two reasons. In a New York Review of Books article pushing the idea of an infrastructure bank, Felix Rohatyn and Everett Ehrlich wrote:
“Ultimately, we face a future of mass transit strained beyond capacity, planes sitting on tarmacs, slow traffic and wasteful sprawl, ports that lack the capacity to operate efficiently, and increasing numbers of bridges and dams that are obsolescent and dangerous to the public’s health and safety.”
That’s one reason. The other is that we’re never going to get out of this economic fix if we can’t swing open the doors to millions of new jobs. Infrastructure investment is one of the keys to that objective.
So we’re going to do it. But will we be smart about it?
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company