We Need Infrastructure Now

Emergency personnel gather near the scene of a deadly train wreck, Wednesday, May 13, 2015,  after a fatal Amtrak derailment
Emergency personnel gather near the scene of a deadly train wreck, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, after a fatal Amtrak derailment Tuesday night, in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia. Federal investigators arrived Wednesday to determine why an Amtrak train jumped the tracks in a wreck that killed at least six people, and injured dozens. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Remember shovel-ready infrastructure jobs and how they were going to lift the country out of the economic doldrums? They have not fared well, thanks to partisan politics. The Amtrak crash that took at least six lives last night makes it more obvious than ever that we need them now. The anemic first quarter economic report -- the American economy grew by only .2 percent -- underscores how our engines of growth have nearly stalled. We can't expect the private sector to begin producing the new jobs we so desperately need right now -- unless, of course, business leaders collectively realize how much they need to act on their own, regardless of demand, to raise wages and provide new work opportunities. But that's another subject.

Why hasn't the government itself been able to stimulate the economy by directing tax dollars into the pockets of workers? Politics, on both sides. In 2011, the president offered a $447 billion jobs plan. Predictably Republicans blocked it because of the way it would be funded: through a surcharge on income over $1 million, even though that kind of tax is widely supported in the polls. Republicans said that it would punish owners of small and mid-sized businesses disproportionately -- in other words the upper middle class, more than the rich.

In response, Democrats attempted a save face by passing a $35 billion bill to prevent layoffs of teachers and firefighters, but it was also blocked. The Republicans produced a counter-offer, blocked by Democrats. And so the story goes. The president unveiled another try at a slightly less costly infrastructure initiative last summer, but it has fared no better.

The American voter wants this kind of government spending, even on the conservative side. Nearly three-fourths of the country supports government spending to put people back to work on infrastructure projects, according to Gallup. The pollster has said, "Americans' support for job creation outweighs concerns they may have about government spending."

In the Washington Post recently, Fareed Zakaria suggested that our presidential candidates need to start talking about this issue now. I wholeheartedly agree. Enough with the photo ops and the generalities about focusing on "job growth." We need specifics equivalent to skin in the game, and some indication that the candidates realize what a sure win the passage of infrastructure legislation would be, for everyone involved.

In one especially felicitous line, after speaking about how lobbyists hover over everything Congress does now, Zakaria says, "Meanwhile, there are no special interests for industries of the future." Remarkably, he points out that America, despite our stagnation in job growth, remains the third most efficient economy in the world, outperforming every other advanced economy since 2008. Yet we're desperate for investment, both private and public. Vast sums of money sit idle, and government remains in gridlock when it comes to agreement on how to rebuild our infrastructure.

What if one of our candidates laid out not just a plan on how to rebuild our bridges and roads and dams, but, step-by-step, how he or she would bring the two parties together in Congress and get them to agree on a how to do that rebuilding? That's really all that's lacking: the determination, humility and patience to sit down and compromise, horse-trade, and hammer out terms that would be acceptable for both sides -- so that thousands of our unemployed could go back to work in a wave of employment reminiscent of the WPA. That alone might stir investment from elsewhere, and the private sector itself might stir into life with new jobs, new ventures, and new attempts to draw on that new spending power among so many working consumers.

We need investment on so many levels, as Zakaria points out -- education, health, nutrition, child care, all the areas that will nurture the American workers of the future. Basic research in science, as well, is falling by the wayside. It would be great to hear candidates discuss all of these areas in need of investment, but we need to take one step at a time. What if one candidate simply narrowed the focus down to a first step, as a model for how to proceed on all the rest. Get Congress to come together on infrastructure and then lay the next brick in our economic foundation. It would mean putting the welfare of the country above political gain, which is something that hasn't been happening for a long, long time.

In the end, on election day, voters may reward the candidate with the best plan. We don't need evasions, generalities, rhetoric, and bromides. We need a practical, specific plan to move the country forward.

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. He can be found at Good Reads.