Stimulus: Feel Good Spending v. Investment in the Future


By Marc Seltzer; Originally published on February 5, 2009, at

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There is no question that Barack Obama’s plan for creating jobs will ease the pain of this economic downturn.  However, in the long term, not all jobs are equal.

There are examples from the past of public spending programs that employed many Americans and paid off handsomely.  Constructing the interstate highways cost 114 billion dollars (adjusted for inflation, upwards of 425 billion) and employed hundreds of thousands over 30-plus years.  The result facilitated interstate commerce greatly, contributing to American’s industrial and commercial success and prosperity.

John F. Kennedy’s Mission to the Moon likewise employed hundreds of thousands in the effort to send a man to the moon during the 1960s.  The payoff was in leadership in science and engineering and advances in aerospace and communications technology, which have transformed our economy and way of life.

It is against these examples that our current spending proposals in congress should be measured.  Building and repairing roads today will no longer transform the industrial or productive capacity of tomorrow.  Even repairing bridges, some badly in need, though valuable, will not multiply the economic gains through new industrial and commercial success.  Roads and bridges are important, but they should simply be included in existing infrastructure plans to be paid for where they bring value within government budgets.

What does measure up?

The types of public spending that could bring jobs now and prosperity in the future are those that successfully address current economic problems.  For example, nationally, we spend far too much money on health care for the services that we receive.  We could put doctor and insurance records on line in a step towards better managing our system and we can spend more now on research and development from pharmaceuticals and cancer to genes and stem cells with an aim to achieve cost-effective health benefits.

Similarly, in urban centers we spend too much time commuting in traffic, lowering our productivity.  Investment in substantial urban public transportation, such as a comprehensive Los Angeles Metro system and smarter choices nationwide, could make a real difference in long-term productivity and savings in pollution and energy costs.

We also need clean energy that is competitive with oil, which has been economically efficient but environmentally costly.  This might take 10, 25 or even 50 years to develop.  But the investment would pay off in securing new affordable energy that was less environmentally harmful and creating a new commodity that we make and trade rather than import to our detriment.

Most importantly, our education is failing to produce a new generation that can lead the world in science, technology, research and all the other fields of importance to our continuing leadership and prosperity. Our commitment to education can’t fluctuate with the cycles of the economy unless we accept that our leadership in the 21st century will waiver.

Investment in any of these fields, that are designed to enhance productivity and profitability of public and private activity, will increase value.  In many ways the other spending included in the stimulus bill is just a temporary fix with long-term negative budget-deficit consequences.

In this light, both Democrats and Republicans have it wrong.  Spending on anything but investments in the future is wasteful–tax cuts ease the pain, but do nothing extraordinary for the future health of the nation.

We can certainly provide unemployment insurance as a safety net for the many who are suffering, but the stimulus bill must aim for productivity and prosperity in the future economy or else it robs us of our precious resources without laying the foundation for sustainable improvement.

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