Let's talk about bridges, not burrito bowls

The discussion of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy has, so far, thoroughly explored her video announcement, restaurant choices, clothes, health, ethics and, of course, husband. Relatively little attention has been devoted to her ideas — or the ones that should animate her campaign. The easiest way for Hillary Clinton to change the conversation would be to put out some big policy proposals. It would be good for the country as well.

Marco Rubio has staked out his claim as the champion of reform. In his latest book and other places, Rubio has argued intelligently for a revamping or replacement of systems that don’t address today’s needs. Some of his ideas are standard-fare Republican rhetoric, such as deregulation and the reduction of the number of tax brackets. Others are surprising and truly radical, such as phasing out the subsidy for employer-sponsored health care.

The United States, like most advanced industrial countries, needs reform and restructuring. Regulations pile up and lobbies fight hard to keep benefits for established players. Meanwhile, there are no special interests for the industries of the future. The tax code is a corrupt mess. But is this the greatest and most urgent problem facing the United States today?

When you compare America with the rest of the world, it does not seem to be hobbled by inefficiencies. In the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Competitiveness Report, the United States ranks third — and the countries before it, Switzerland and Singapore, are tiny. This is why America has outperformed almost every other advanced economy since the global crisis of 2008.

On the other hand, America is in dire need of investment — in physical and human capital. In the same report, the United States ranks 12th in overall infrastructure, 24th in quality of electricity supply and a stunning 101st in mobile telephone subscriptions.

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ most recent Report Card for America’s Infrastructure details the dangers. The average age of the country’s 84,000 dams is 52 years and of its 607,380 bridges, 42 years. An estimated 240,000 water main breaks take place annually. And, as the report notes, “forty-two percent of America’s major urban highways remain congested, costing the economy an estimated $101 billion in wasted time and fuel annually.”

The need for investment in human capital is less visible but in fact more urgent. Social mobility — the ability to rise out of the economic class you were born into — has stalled in America in large measure because poor children have inadequate nutrition, child care and education. As New York Times columnist Eduardo Porter has noted, the United States is virtually alone among rich countries in that it spends substantially less on educating poor children than on privileged ones. In New York, for example, the government spends around $26,000 per child in the richest neighborhoods, compared with just $13,000 in the poorest neighborhoods.

Another crucial investment should be in science and research. The federal government is spending less as a percentage of gross domestic product in these areas than it did in the 1970s. This has things backward. In that era, America had a large industrial economy, with tens of millions of jobs available for people with only high school degrees. Today those jobs are in China. The United States needs to create jobs in sectors and industries of the future. We should really be investing much more, not less, in science at this point. Newt Gingrich has suggested doubling the budget of the National Institutes of Health. I would propose more broadly that Washington set a goal to double the percentage that the federal government spends on basic research.

To those who would raise concerns about the deficit, former treasury secretary Larry Summers put it well on my CNN program on Sunday: “We’ve reduced the deficit from 11 percent of GDP to below 3 percent of GDP. It’s lower now, relative to the economy, than it’s been on average over the last 40 years. . . . The deficit I worry about is a huge backlog of deferred maintenance that we’re leaving to our children. The deficit I worry about is an educational system that’s not meeting the needs of more than half of the kids in American public schools. The deficit I worry about is in equal opportunity, when the gap between rich kids and poor kids in terms of their ability to go to college has never been greater. . . . That is a moment for us as a country to do what a business would do, which is to take advantage of low borrowing costs to invest in our future.”

If Hillary Clinton starts talking relentlessly about investing in America, maybe the media will stop asking what kind of burrito she ordered.

© 2015, Washington Post Writers Group