Forget Second Stimulus; We Need Economic Vision

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As the American economy slowly heals, the Obama administration will no doubt claim some credit for its $787 billion stimulus — and perhaps even suggest doubling down for a second stage. Republicans, for their part, will place their emphasis on the “slow” part of the equation and persistent high unemployment, blaming the very same stimulus program.

Whatever the politics, no new stimulus should be considered unless it deals with the fundamental illness undermining the country’s long-term economic prospects. Such a stimulus would address the country’s essential problem: persistent overconsumption amid underproduction.

Neither party wants to address this issue because neither chooses to understand it. From the very beginning, the Obama administration has viewed the stimulus as a political issue, not an economic one. This became clear to me even before the election when I asked Obama’s campaign economic adviser, Austan Goolsbee, about “the goal” of the president-to-be’s program.

All I got for my trouble was vague political rhetoric about improving the economy. Though some parts of the stimulus, such as extending health and unemployment benefits, were clearly justified, the whole program never sought to address the roughly $800 billion annual imbalance between American consumption and production.

Instead, we have witnessed a grab bag of political handouts — Chicago machine politics on a grand scale — designed to placate key Democratic constituencies. Most have gone to what my old teacher Michael Harrington described as “the social-industrial complex” consisting of the education industry, social service providers and the various government bureaucracies.

As a recent New America Foundation report makes clear, precious little has gone to the productive side of the economy that determines the country’s competitiveness and creates many high-paying blue-collar jobs. Infrastructure, a critical component of any productivity-enhancing strategy, has accounted for barely 10 percent of the package.

The results have not been pretty for the productive sectors of the economy. Construction workers now have higher than 19 percent unemployment; jobs in this sector have fallen during the past year in 333 out of 352 metropolitan areas, with more than 200 plunging by double digits. Meanwhile, the hard-pressed manufacturing sector suffers more than 12 percent unemployment.

Why this disinclination to fund the tangible parts of the economy? One reason may be that those working in construction and manufacturing — both blue-collar workers and white-collar professionals — do not wield the same influence in this law review administration as college professors, Service Employees International Union-organized workers or unionized teachers.

One also senses that some militant environmentalists in the administration may be less than enthusiastic about anything associated with the entire carbon-creating part of the economy. Certainly, new factories, natural gas facilities, roads, ports and waterways don’t fit the professed passion of the president’s own science adviser, John Holdren, for the gradual “de-development” of the U.S. and other advanced economies.

Even prospects for the auto industry — the one manufacturing sector that the administration has effectively annexed — are threatened by plans to enact policies that will “coerce” Americans out of their cars. This amounts to trying to “save” an industry by destroying it.

For sectors not under government control — warehousing, fossil fuel energy, home construction and agriculture — the administration’s “green” regulatory regime could boost costs at the worst possible time. As a result, the coming recovery once again may be consumption-led and fail to improve our overall competitiveness. The biggest beneficiaries will most likely be Chinese manufacturers, German and Japanese automakers and, because of a lack of sufficient domestic alternatives, energy producers from Venezuela and the Middle East to Russia.

If they had a collective IQ over 50, the still largely discredited Republicans could run strongly against this economic scenario. Yet, for the most part, they seem incapable of putting the national interest ahead of Wall Street’s profits and corporate excess.

So no matter how much the conservatives complain, Obamanomics most likely will end up with results remarkably like those of Bushonomics: more consumption, less production, expanding public debt, asset inflation on Wall Street and a slowly declining middle-class standard of living. The only real difference will lie in who gets to rob the public — instead of pharmaceutical and oil companies, we get Gorite “renewable” energy traders and well-connected “green” venture capitalists.

Americans need to place a pox on both these flawed models. We need a totally new approach that focuses on key productivity-enhancing investments such as improved transportation infrastructure — new roads, bridges, ports and waterways to meet the demands of an expanded economy for a growing population. We should be looking at modern equivalents of the New Deal electrification program, the GI Bill, the Eisenhower highway and the space program.

Clearly, an infrastructure that is inadequate today will be utterly useless in 2050, when there are projected to be at least 100 million more Americans. Already, our energy-generating capacity in some parts sputters like that of a Third World country. Commodity exports, such as grains, unable to reach foreign markets because of a lack of rail cars and adequate waterways, are left to rot and feed rats.

This is not the way to prepare ourselves for ever greater competition from countries such as China, India and Brazil. Americans must demand a program that, while perhaps financially painful now, will make it possible for our progeny to enjoy a prosperous future rather than a declining one.