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With the economy faltering, jobs being lost by the hundreds of thousands and public sentiment about the economy hitting new lows, we have been told to expect proposals for new infrastructure programs to surface in Congress and from the new administration soon.  And indeed, as the economy shed 500,000 plus jobs in November alone, the idea gained greater urgency

Infrastructure spending programs to stimulate the economy are, of course, not new and have generally been very popular.  In the early 1800s, the New York state legislature authorized the spending of $7 million to build the 360 mile Erie canal system as a way to stimulate trade with the mid-western territories (after President Monroe vetoed a funding proposal from Congress).  Similarly, in the 1860s, Congress and the President underwrote bond issues to help construct the first transcontinental railroad.  The most famous was the WPA begun in the 1930s as part of FDR’s New Deal efforts to reduce the massive unemployment of the Great Depression.  More recently, in President Dwight Eisenhower and the Congress initiated construction of an interstate highway system in the 1950s that was to cost about $128 billion over the next 35 years.

President-elect Obama has set ambitious targets for his stimulus package.  In a recent radio address, he stated that with the stimulus package he will propose he aims to:

. . . help save or create at least two and a half million jobs, while rebuilding our infrastructure, improving our schools, reducing our dependence on oil, and saving billions of dollars.

Spending estimates for these program have ranged from $100 to $300 billion or more.  While the specifics of his stimulus package may not be known for awhile, no doubt it will include outlays for major construction projects like rebuilding our transportation infrastructure.  But to prepare the US for greater competitiveness in the 21st century, we should go beyond investment in roads and bridges.  Here are some ideas:

  • Alternative energy
  • Revamping our nation’s power grid
  • Telecommunications that will make truly high speed broadband available to everyone
  • “Smart” networks to better manage things like traffic congestion, power usage and dissemination of patient data
  • Serious reform of our schools that reexamines the assumptions and methods underlying our ailing 150 year old industrial model of education
  • Incentivizing investment in biotechnology for agriculture, medicine and a host of other industrial applications
  • Modern pubic transportation systems that convenient and cost effective

Whatever choices are made, we should make investments in our “intellectual infrastructure” as well as our physical infrastructure.  We are in a time of crisis.  But as history shows us, this can also be a time of great opportunity – a chance to create a better world for ourselves and future generations.