As some of you know, one of my additional jobs is running a debate research handbook company called Big Sky Debate. Each summer, I spend an enormous amount of time researching the national high school debate topic, reading dozens of books and hundreds of magazine and journal articles about the topic for that year. This year’s topic requires teams to argue about America’s transportation infrastructure, and as I have begun my research I’ve been reminded about one of the reasons I believe that government should play a vital, active role in building support for businesses and communities.
The United States government insufficiently invests in infrastructure, to the detriment of our economic and environmental future.
Deficit hawks decry every form of spending that doesn’t involve building a tank, but this thinking is incredibly short-sighted. Instead of penny-pinching that plays well in the press, Congress should look to the future to ensure that the United States is competitive in international markets.
Consider ports. Many American ports are too shallow, causing shippers and companies to move to other locations:
By contrast, Brazil, India, China and Southeast Asia are dredging ports in as little as three years, including planning and construction, Anderson says.
Meanwhile, U.S. and foreign companies often turn to countries with modernized ports.
Caterpillar, the world’s top maker of construction and mining equipment, has moved 30% of its exports and 40% of imports to Canadian ports in recent years, costing U.S. ports tens of millions of dollars a year in revenue.
We’ve responded with no action–except to cut the amount we spend on our ports.
Consider something as simple as improving our streets to allow for easier use by pedestrians and cyclists. It will cost money to improve our streets, but the enormous benefits we’ll realize in terms of health, the environment, and safety would be enormous. Instead of that discussion, though, we spend deliberative time discussing whether or not better roads for pedestrians and cars are a plot by the United Nations.
Consider areas you might not have thought of in terms of infrastructure, like our national parks. We’ve neglected infrastructure in them so badly that there is an almost $10 billion dollar backlog of deferred maintenance on roads, buildings, trails, and more. Anyone who has been to Glacier or Yellowstone recently can attest to these deficiencies.
National parks, of course, do more than preserve our national heritage. They provide economic stimulus. Better protecting and investing in the system will generate revenue, as the National Parks Conservation Association notes:
National parks not only protect our heritage; they are important to local economies nationwide. A recent study commissioned by NPCA found that every federal dollar invested in national parks generates at least four dollars in direct economic impact to the economy—supporting more than $13 billion of direct local private-sector economic activity and nearly 270,000 private sector jobs.
Investing in these programs will cost money. Of course it will. But that kind of investment is exactly what made the American economy boom after World War II, along the way giving us the world’s best air, rail, ship, and vehicle transportation system in the world.
Instead of believing that the best solution to every economic problem is to give away tax breaks to corporations, why not have a government which invests in those companies and their workers, improving the infrastructure necessary for business and healthy living? Instead of the short-term, narrowly-targeted gains from these tax cuts, why not invest in the country like we once did?
Hell, even Mitt Romney supporters know that infrastructure spending builds the economy:
“I believe that there’s got to be an economic plan to take care of our roads and our bridges,” Parker said. “Half a trillion over five years — over all of the United States.” Parker disagreed with Obama’s proposal to pay for his own infrastructure plan with a surtax on the wealthy, but he did say he favors a “gas tax” to pay for it.
“You have to have tax revenues to make it happen,” he said of his hope for a massive infrastructure plan.
Conservatism in this country used to mean sensible investment of our nation’s resources, not calling every domestic government program “socialism” and demanding it be cut in favor of private enterprise.
Our roads, our economy, and our future may depend on seeing beyond that simplistic idea and recognizing that among the most important roles for government must be building what can be the economic backbone of the nation: a healthy, modern infrastructure.