The New America Foundation’s Sherle Schwenninger and industrialist and philanthropist Bernard Schwartz were out way ahead of the pack in calling for massive government commitment to infrastructure investment.
Now this has become conventional wisdom of late. Not too long ago, Senior Obama economic policy adviser Austan Goolsbee complimented Schwenninger’s heavy-lifting on the infrastructure agenda before many others were in that policy space.
But beyond a bland embrace of the need for new infrastructure investment, I really appreciated Barack Obama’s thoughtful dissection and embrace of the infrastructure challenge in his exchange with Rachel Maddow last night.
He’s exactly on target.
From the Maddow-Obama interview:
MADDOW: There may be some policy fights ahead, particularly in responding to the economic crisis that will have both a practical and an ideological component. If we are looking at economic stimulus, is there a possibility that you could see in your first term, if you are elected, that we’d need an economic stimulus program that felt to Americans a little bit like a public works program, a little bit like an FDR-style infrastructure building program?
OBAMA: Well, I’ve actually talked about this. And I haven’t been hiding the ball on this. I think we have to rebuild our infrastructure. Look at what China’s doing right now. Their trains are faster than us, their ports are better than us. They are preparing for a very competitive 21st century economy and we’re not.
One of the most frustrating things over the last eight years has been the ability of George Bush to pile up debt and huge deficits and not have anything to show for it, right? So, if you’re going to run deficit spending, then it better be in rebuilding our roads, our bridges, our sewer lines, our water system, laying broadband lines.
One of, I think, the most important infrastructure projects that we need is a whole new electricity grid. Because if we’re going to be serious about renewable energy, I want to be able to get wind power from North Dakota to population centers, like Chicago. And we’re going to have to have a smart grid if we want to use plug-in hybrids then we want to be able to have ordinary consumers sell back the electricity that’s generated from those car batteries, back into the grid. That can create 5 million new jobs, just in new energy.
But, it’s huge projects that generally speaking, you’re not going to have private enterprise would want to take all those risks. And we’re going to have to be involved in that process.
MADDOW: Also an issue on something like the electrical grid, that’s an issue of American resilience, even against the threat of terrorism. A lot of times when you look at counter-terrorism, officials think that they came out, or an al-Qaeda attack on the electrical grid.
OBAMA: That’s exactly right.
MADDOW: Well you know, at this point, a snow storm is an attack on our electrical grid.
OBAMA: That’s exactly right.
MADDOW: Are there Homeland Security vulnerabilities that you think are fixable in ways that would also be good for the economy?
OBAMA: Well, you mentioned one. The electricity grid I think is important. I think that chemical plant security is another where the chemical industry has been resistant to mandates when it comes to hardening their sites. But, you know what? If you’ve got a chemical plant that threatens 100,000, or a million people in New Jersey, we better have some say in terms of how serious they are about guarding that facility.
MADDOW: Why hasn’t that been fixed already?
OBAMA: Well, I think it’s a classic example of special interests lobbying. There has been resistance from the chemical industry. And it is this — again, an ideological predisposition that says regulation’s always bad. So, stay out of the market place.
Well, look. I am a strong believer in the free market. I am a strong believer in capitalism. But, I am also a strong believer that there are certain common goods that you know — our air, our water, making sure that people are safe — that require us to have some regulation. Now, it has to be well designed.
But, the financial system is a classic example of a deregulation philosophy run amuck. And now, you see the consequences and ironically, had we had some sensible regulation, we would not have now, actually, a much closer approximation to socialism when it comes to the banking system, then anything that any Democrats have been proposing over the last several years.
When you don’t guard against excess, then a lot of times government ends up having to step in anyway, in a much more burdensome way.
MADDOW: Part of the ideological argument against regulation is that
government always does things (INAUDIBLE).
MADDOW: I’ve been worried about this because I’ve been very focused on the GI bill.
MADDOW: VA is making worrying noises about their ability, their capacity to implement it. Can you give me an example of how you would make agencies better at doing what they’re supposed to do? Just improving capacity?
OBAMA: Well, look. Look, look. I mean, there’s a great example in FEMA. Now, they’ve gotten better since Katrina. But, the idea that our basic emergency functions had been under the leadership of a guy whose only expertise was you know, the Arabian Horses Association. That’s a problem.
So, some of it’s just getting the right people. Some of it is using technology in intelligent ways. One of the things that I’m excited about is to transfer what we’ve learned from this campaign in using technology, into government. I mean, there are huge areas where we can open things up, make things more transparent.
I passed a bill working with a Republican, Tom Coburn, called the Google for Government Bill, where now you can go to a single site and you can pull up a searchable database of every dollar of Federal spending that’s out there. Which means now you’ve got a lot greater accountability.
While there are examples of that all throughout our government that can remove bureaucracy, eliminate red tape, make the whole process more customer friendly. Anybody’s who’s gone to the post office and wants to buy some stamps and you’re trying to figure out the machine, it’s not working properly, the lines are long.
There’s no reason why we can’t make operations like that more efficient and work better. They do it in the private sector all the time.
Barack Obama really impressed me with this policy discussion — as did Rachel Maddow, as usual.
— Steve Clemons