|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
The country could do itself a favor by paying more attention to the efforts of Senator Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who is chairman of the Banking Committee, and Senator Hagel, a Nebraska Republican. They have co-sponsored legislation that would create a national infrastructure bank to promote and help finance large-scale projects across the nation.
Part of their mission is to generate a sense of urgency. In an interview yesterday, Senator Dodd told me: “At a time when we’re worried about rising unemployment rates and declining confidence in this country, infrastructure projects have the dual effect of putting people to work — and usually at pretty good salaries and wages — while also creating a sense of optimism, of investing in the future.”
The country has been hit hard by lost jobs in manufacturing and construction. As government and political leaders are scrambling for ways to stimulate the economy in the current downturn, infrastructure improvements would seem to be a natural component of any effective recovery plan.
“In terms of stimulating the economy, there is nothing better than a job,” said Senator Dodd.
The need for investment on a large scale — and for the long term — is undeniable. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, in a study that should have gotten much more attention when it was released in 2005, it would take more than a trillion and a half dollars over a five-year period to bring the U.S. infrastructure into reasonably decent shape.
Will we wait until another New Orleans-style disaster occurs, or another heavily traveled bridge plunges into a river?
As things stand now, the American infrastructure is incapable of meeting the competitive demands of the globalized 21st-century economy. Senator Hagel noted that ports are overwhelmed by the ever-expanding volume of international trade. Rail lines are overloaded. Highways are clogged.
“The basic infrastructure of a country will determine that country’s future,” he said, “and we are far behind.”
We appear to have forgotten the lessons of history. Time and again an economic boom has followed periods of sustained infrastructure improvement. It’s impossible to calculate all of the benefits from (to mention just a few) the Erie Canal, which connected the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean and helped make New York America’s premier city; the rural electrification program and other capital improvements of the New Deal; the interstate highway program of the Eisenhower administration.
The tremendous costs and vast reach of today’s infrastructure requirements means that the federal government has to take a leadership role. It’s inevitable. The only question is when.
The financier Felix Rohatyn, who served as ambassador to France during the Clinton administration, and former Senator Warren Rudman, a Republican, have been sounding the alarm for a number of years now, urging the government to get over its unwillingness to invest adequately in public transportation systems, water projects, schools, dams, the electric grid, and so on.
I remember Mr. Rohatyn telling me, “A modern economy needs a modern platform, and that’s the infrastructure.”
The current concern over the economy should be taken by the government as a signal to finally move ahead on this critically important issue.