Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

That Can’t-Do Spirit

Posted in Barack Obama, Economy, politics by allisonkilkenny on February 24, 2009

Bob Herbert

982648683_79c561cb31_oIn his first Inaugural Address, with the U.S. all but paralyzed by the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt declared that the nation’s greatest task was “to put people to work.”

Three-quarters of a century later, in the midst of perhaps the worst downturn since the Depression, that remains the biggest challenge.

The U.S. economy cannot work if ordinary men and women cannot find work. Let’s forget for a moment all the ritualized lingo about tax cuts, all the easy but uninformed talk about entitlement reform and all the empty rhetoric about balancing budgets that will never be truly balanced in our lifetimes.

What Americans need is new employment on a massive scale, and one of the most effective ways to get that started is to invest extraordinary amounts in the nation’s infrastructure, to rebuild America in a way that creates a world-class platform for a sustainable 21st-century economy.

President Obama’s stimulus package is just a first step in the government’s effort to stabilizing the hemorrhaging economy. It contains infrastructure spending, but nothing comparable to the vast amounts it will take to make the desperately needed improvements.

Funds spent on those improvements, which will have to be made sooner or later, are also cracker-jack investments in putting people to work. The idea that the government is spending trillions on wars, bank bailouts, tax cuts, and so on, while still neglecting its infrastructure needs — and at a time when Americans are desperate for jobs — is mind-boggling.

The financier Felix Rohatyn has been carrying the banner for infrastructure spending for the longest time. During an address in Washington over the weekend to a meeting of the National Governors Association, he emphasized the importance and long tradition of investing government revenue, with an eye to returns in the long run.

“From the Louisiana Purchase and the Erie Canal, through the creation of the Land Grant colleges, to the interstate highways and the G.I. Bill, government investment was pivotal,” he said.

His new book, “Bold Endeavors: How Our Government Built America, and Why It Must Rebuild Now,” opens with the stark phrase: “The nation is falling apart.”

Mr. Rohatyn goes on to write: “Three-quarters of the country’s public school buildings are outdated and inadequate. More than a quarter of the nation’s bridges are obsolete or deficient. It will take $11 billionannually to replace aging drinking water facilities. Half the locks on more than 12,000 miles of inland waterways are functionally obsolete.”

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, an investment of $2.2 trillion from all sources over five years would be required to get the nation’s infrastructure into decent shape.

You might ask where that money would come from. Great question. How about an infrastructure bank?

The current economic crisis is the perfect time to decide that we need to change some of the tired old ways of doing the people’s business. Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut has offered a bill that would create an infrastructure bank. It would be a bipartisan entity that would streamline the process of reviewing and authorizing major projects. It would provide federal investment capital for approved projects and use that money to leverage private investment.

President Obama supports the establishment of such a bank. When I asked him about it in an interview, he said, “The idea of an infrastructure bank, I think, makes sense.” But he suggested that there would be stiff resistance from lawmakers in both parties who are reluctant to give up their considerable influence over the selection and financing of lucrative infrastructure projects.

The president seemed optimistic about the prospects of moving ahead with some additional infrastructure spending, and he said he “would like to see some long-term reforms” in the way transportation money is spent. He acknowledged that the nation’s infrastructure “needs are massive, and we can’t do everything.”

But we could do a lot more. There is something weirdly self-defeating about having a need as clear-cut as the need to move beyond a deteriorating 20th-century physical plant, and being unable to do it because of the wasteful, inefficient and outmoded 20th-century way of doing politics and government.

In his address to the governors, Mr. Rohatyn noted that President Obama had asked Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to come up with a plan for financing high-speed rail projects. He said he hoped that that would be a step toward the eventual establishment of an infrastructure bank.

Speaking about America’s competitors in the global economy, Mr. Rohatyn noted, among other things, that China was building 100 new airports and that Spanish trains traveling between Madrid and Barcelona can reach speeds of 300 miles per hour.

“We are falling behind on too many fronts,” he said.

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