Magazine article The American Prospect

Time for National Greatness Liberalism: Our National Economic Fortune Depends on Reclaiming a Credible Role for Large-Scale Public Investment

Magazine article The American Prospect

Time for National Greatness Liberalism: Our National Economic Fortune Depends on Reclaiming a Credible Role for Large-Scale Public Investment

Article excerpt

The early 21st-century United States is falling behind the international competition in many areas of economic innovation. Eroding human capital, a cowed middle class worried about declining wages and fraying families, decaying traditional infrastructure, and a prolonged failure to invest in up-to-date communications, transportation, and energy systems all explain why a once leading nation is headed into "has been" status. Surveys tell us that Americans are pessimistic about our future and suspect that competitors such as China are overtaking us. But you don't really need a poll to tell which way the wind is blowing. Walk into any diner in any community beyond the privileged, elite bubbles in Washington, New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, and you will hear people talking about their worries--not just for themselves and their families but for our country.

All of this was true before the recent Wall Street financial meltdown, housing collapse, and Great Recession. The coincidence, however, of such a profound economic crisis with the arrival in 2009 of a reform-oriented Democratic president backed by large congressional majorities offered the perfect opportunity for national economic renewal.

Millions of new jobs are needed to dig us out of the hole created by the crisis. We cannot merely stop the plunge. At this critical juncture, new private, public, and private-public investments would be cost-effective uses of economic resources. The price of labor and materials for new projects to rebuild America is lower than it would be in a booming economy. We have an unparalleled opportunity to connect investments in the foundations of U.S. economic renewal to concrete improvements in employment, education, and health.

It's a no-brainer, really. America needs a National Greatness Liberalism--a brawny brand of politics that makes a tough-minded argument about what it will take from our government and democratic polities to regain our national economic strength and rebuild a broad, secure, and innovative middle class. Our national military and diplomatic strength in a dangerous world depends, too, on our economic renewal as a middle-class capitalist economy.

Investments for America's future can be linked to tradition--a sure formula for political success. The history of a delimited yet robust government role in spurring broad capitalist economic growth stretches all the way back to the nation's beginnings. America's federal government spread the world's first national postal network; fostered the proliferation of family farms; encouraged then-state-of-the-art transportation systems such as canals and railroads; and ensured generous support for military veterans and their families. State and local governments spread mass primary and secondary public schooling--putting the United States into the educational lead for much of the modern industrial era.


Even a cursory survey of the last century shows that national economic fortunes have always depended upon robust synergies between public and private investment. Periods when the national government and state governments have been cowed into minimalism or captured by super-wealthy interests looking to rip off public resources--think of the late 1920s as well as the Wall Street era of the late 20th century--have been associated with faltering economic growth as well as extremes of poverty and middle-class decline. By contrast, times such as the post-World War II era of extraordinary American prosperity and power have been periods in which major social programs--such as Social Security and the GI bill--spread opportunity and security. Likewise, during these points, America made huge public investments in infrastructure--such as the national highway system--and the privileged paid substantial taxes, even as they reaped profits from the booming economy.

Barack Obama campaigned for office in 2007 and 2008, promising to restore the American dream and build a bottom-up economy. …

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