America Needs Its Edge Back
Tomasky, Michael, Newsweek
Byline: Michael Tomasky
Obama is right. We need new roads and schools. But the Tea Partiers will fight him all the way.
Finally, Barack Obama found the passion. "Building a world-class transportation system is part of what made us an economic superpower," he thundered in his jobs speech on the evening of Sept. 8. "And now we're going to sit back and watch China build newer airports and faster railroads? At a time when millions of unemployed construction workers could build them right here in America?"
Obama's urgency was rightly about jobs first and foremost. But he wasn't talking only about jobs when he mentioned investing in America--he was talking about our competitiveness, and our edge in the world. And it's a point he must keep pressing.
In a quickly reordering global world, infrastructure and innovation are key measures of a society's seriousness about its competitive drive. And we're just not serious. The most recent infrastructure report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the United States a D overall, including bleak marks in 15 categories ranging from roads (D-minus) to schools and transit (both D's) to bridges (C). The society calls for $2.2 trillion in infrastructure investments over the next five years.
On the innovation front, the country that's home to Google and the iPhone still ranks fourth worldwide in overall innovation, according to the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), the leading think tank on such questions, which conducts a biannual ranking. But we might not be there for long. In terms of keeping pace with other nations' innovation investments--"progress over the last decade," as ITIF labels it--we rank 43rd out of 44 countries.
What's the problem? It isn't know-how; this is still America. It isn't identifying the needs; they've been identified to death. Nor is it even really money. There are billions sitting around in pension funds, equity funds, sovereign wealth funds, just waiting to be spent.
The problem--of course--is politics. The idea that the two parties could get together and develop bold bipartisan plans for massive investments in our freight-rail system--on which the pro-business multiplier effects would be obvious--or in expanding and speeding up broadband (it's eight times faster in South Korea than here, by the way) is a joke. Says New York University's Michael Likosky: "We're the only country in the world that is imposing austerity on itself. No one is asking us to do it."
There are some historical reasons why. Sherle Schwenninger, an infrastructure expert at the New America Foundation, a leading Washington think tank, says that a kind of anti-bigness mindset developed in the 1990s, that era in which the besotting buzzwords were "Silicon Valley" and "West Coast venture capital." Wall Street began moving away from grand projects. "In that '90s paradigm, the New Economy-Silicon Valley approach to things eschewed the public and private sectors' working together to do big things," Schwenninger says. "That model worked for software, social media, and some biotech. But the needs are different today."
That's true, but so is the simple point that the Republican Party in Washington will oppose virtually all public investment. …