Obama aims small on infrastructure

Washington-Post-LogoBy Fareed Zakaria

President Obama’s State of the Union address presented an expanded vision of smart government to create jobs and revive the economy. Yet he lowered his sights on the single policy that would both jump-start the economy in the short term and create the conditions for long-term growth: infrastructure spending. Having tried several times to propose infrastructure bills of around $50 billion — or just 0.3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) — the president further scaled back, proposing a “fix-it-first” plan that repairs 70,000 bridges falling down nationwide. This would apply a band-aid on America’s growing cancer of failing infrastructure. A 2009 study of all U.S. infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers concluded that $2.2 trillion should be spent over five years to bring the nation’s roads, bridges, railway tracks, airports and associated systems up to grade.

Here are three crucial facts.

First, this is the big bang: It would be the most effective way to create good jobs. Private investment in commercial and residential real estate is still well below the historic norm. Unemployment in the construction industry is among the nation’s highest, hovering above 16 percent.

Second, it’s cheap: The federal government’s borrowing costs are lower than they are likely to ever be again. If you have to fix your decaying boiler, deferring maintenance is not fiscally prudent: The bill will be larger after the boiler explodes.

Third, this is an area where the federal government has a big role, one that Republicans have long embraced. In 1930, even as Herbert Hoover was trying to balance the federal budget, he urged large-scale expenditures on infrastructure.

The impact on growth from, for example, streamlining air-traffic control systems is obvious — bringing in more goods, travelers and tourists. But the United States also needs to connect many of its mid-size cities to the world market, cities that since the recession have been doing a lot of the heavy lifting in exports, job creation and economic growth. The United States needs new and expanded infrastructure to move more gas turbines from Charlotte (which Obama mentioned Tuesday), precision medical equipment and construction equipment from Illinois and Indiana, motorcycles from Milwaukee and more.

And yet, despite all this, infrastructure spending is politically dead.

Obama invited congressional Republicans to a private screening of “Lincoln,” hoping they would see compromise in action. (They refused.) Perhaps he should try to get them to watch the splendid new “American Experience” documentary on the making of the Panama Canal. One hundred years ago, the United States completed what was then the most expensive, complex and ultimately successful government program in human history. (The canal opened in 1914, but the final excavation ended in December 1913.) In his book “The Path Between the Seas,” historian David McCullough put the bill at $352 million, which was about five times the total cost of all the country’s land acquisitions to date — California, Florida, New Mexico, Alaska and Hawaii.

The French had tried to build the canal a few years earlier but, despite putting the builder of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps, on the job, they left in total failure. The American project’s first chief engineer quit after the first year. His replacement left as well. Only with the third did the project start moving. Yellow fever killed thousands of workers and caused others to flee in fright. The engineering challenges were immense and often seemed insurmountable. Media reports about the project were largely negative.

Then, in November 1906, Theodore Roosevelt visited the canal. It was the first time a president had ever left the boundaries of the United States. Roosevelt, a Republican, was determined that the project continue and be adequately funded. He turned his visit into one of the first great presidential photo ops. The journalist William Inglis wrote that “now that the President has gone to Panama, has seen that the work is progressing . . . the people are slowly awakening to the fact that our engineers and mechanics and laborers are making a success of the greatest and most difficult engineering feat in the world.”

Through sheer perseverance, the age-old fantasy of connecting the world’s two great oceans became a reality. The practical result was to cut travel time for goods and cargo between the east and the west by an order of magnitude, igniting an explosion of trade. Today more than 14,500 ships, and 244 million tons of cargo, pass through the canal annually.

What are we doing today that people, 100 years from now, will look back upon with pride?

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