When Richard Nixon announced that we are all Keynesians now, stagflation was confounding liberal economists, and conservatives were about to take over the commanding heights. Similarly, when Bill Clinton announced that “the era of big government is over,” economic conservatism was about to take us off the cliff. Now “the era of big government is over” is over.
Garry Wills says Americans think of government only as a “necessary evil,” a last resort. Well, folks, all the other resorts are boarded up. In November, America shed more than 500,000 jobs, the worst single-month record in thirty-four years. We lost more than 2 million over the course of 2008–and the crash is accelerating across the globe.
At the same time, America is falling apart, literally. We’ve witnessed the ghastly spectaculars: failure of the levees in New Orleans, collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, bursting of the steam pipe that shut down ten square blocks of Manhattan. But these tragic catastrophes are a small part of the growing costs of a conservative-era failure to invest in our future.
Conservative scorn for government has produced a crippling public-investment deficit. America’s core infrastructure–roads, bridges, sewers, airports, trains, mass transit–is overcrowded, outdated and crumbling. The evidence, assembled by Eric Lotke in The Investment Deficit in America, issued by the Campaign for America’s Future, is stark. Poor road conditions cost Americans billions in repairs and countless hours in delay. Though China opens a new subway system every year, and Europeans travel from Paris to Frankfurt on high-speed rail, American railroads don’t have the funds needed even to maintain their outmoded infrastructure. Cities are suffering an epidemic of broken pipes and sinkholes, with the Environmental Protection Agency estimating more than 40,000 discharges of raw sewage into our drinking water, streams and homes each year from collapsing and overwhelmed sewage systems. The Education Department found that one-third of our schools are in such a severe state of disrepair that it “interferes with the delivery of instruction.”
While the old basics are crumbling, twenty-first-century needs are being ignored. We maintain our addiction to oil while forfeiting our lead in renewable-energy technologies that will drive the green markets of the future. As two-income and single-parent families spread, we are failing to provide the high-quality childcare and pre-kindergarten programs vital to educating the next generation. Even as college or advanced training are deemed essential in the modern economy, more and more Americans find them priced out of reach. Our healthcare system is broken, consuming too many resources while providing care for too few. We invented the Internet, yet we rank about fifteenth among developed countries in access to broadband. In Japan, the average broadband speed is many times faster than our own. US federal investment in research and development is half what it was as a percentage of GDP in the 1960s.
It is time to invest in America. Recovery from this crisis provides the imperative; the investment deficit the targets. But turning the crisis into opportunity isn’t sufficient. The fundamental question is whether the short-term response will lead to a new New Deal, a permanent expansion of the social contract.