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Rebuild America

America's infrastructure is largely worn out and in some places was never built. Now, with government borrowing costs at historic lows, is the time to launch a 10-year program to rebuild everything. It should be the largest imaginable program and involve state and local financing as well as federal. It should be comparable in relative size, visibility, and impact to the great water projects of the 1930s, the interstate highway system of the 1950s, and the space program of the 1960s. It would, of course, leave future generations additional debt to service but also with even more valuable benefits—safe and efficient transportation and utility systems that will cost less to maintain than the crumbling mess that will be replaced. Although it would create millions of jobs, it should be sold as an investment in America's public facilities and future. It would be good election-year politics for Obama to spend the next year selling a visionary Rebuild America Investment even if it doesn't get through Congress.

We have thousands of bridges and thousands of miles of roads that are worn out or obsolete. Occasionally one collapses with tragic and humiliating results. Many large urban sewer systems are ancient and inadequate, and we never built much of the legally-required sewage treatment capacity that could clean up our waterways and conserve our water resources. Water supply mains in many areas are worn out and undersized. Our air traffic control system is obsolete and increasingly unsafe, and many airports need expansion, upgrading, or replacement. We need to improve harbors and add parks, public buildings, and other public facilities that are inadequate for our much larger and still growing population. Where mass transit systems and tunnels make sense, now is the time to press forward with those projects. Perhaps there are also "green energy" and other types of infrastructure investments that it would be appropriate for governments to make.

We know we have to do this, but why now? In addition to the obvious need and the availability of cheap money, it would renew the American spirit and jump start and sustain employment, the tax base, and economic growth at a time when we desperately need all of that. Many new construction jobs would go to our most underemployed demographic—men without college degrees. This is not government borrowing to cover a current shortfall between revenues and expenditures. It is not a "stimulus program" or a jobs program to hire people to dig holes and fill them in again just to put purchasing power into the economy, which are bad, or at least unfortunate, reasons to borrow. Borrowing long term for a Rebuild America Investment is a necessary and enduring capital investment in national greatness.

Rebuild America Investment should not be so short-term that only "shovel-ready" projects can get funded. I would think it would take at least a decade, and some projects such as mass transit perhaps 15-20 years to complete. I really don't know how much it would cost, but that can't be an argument against doing this because these are "must-do" investments. I have a feeling, however, that we need to be thinking of numbers in the low trillions of dollars. To put that in perspective, our current, sputtering GDP is $15 trillion per year and employs about 130 million Americans. On that basis, a $3 trillion Rebuild America Investment spent at the rate of $300 billion per year would add 2% to the GDP growth rate and 2.6 million jobs, which is a healthy fraction of the 14 million additional jobs we need to get back to full employment.

If Obama wants to win re-election despite the fact that the economic and employment situation are sure to be still terrible in the fall of 2012, he should make Rebuild America Investment his brand and spend the next year going around the country selling it and trying to jam it through Congress. It will excite voters and draw them too him. If Republicans oppose it (they may not), he can profit greatly from rhetorically contrasting his investment initiative to make America great again—an America we'll proud of—with their insistence on dragging America down to the jerry-build, patched-up level of the former USSR. In any event, it changes the subject from all those things Republicans would prefer to talk about. Remember, Harry Truman won re-election in 1948 by campaigning against the "do-nothing Congress." In order to make this work for him politically, Obama would have to overcome his impulse to compromise, half measures, timidity, and letting his adversaries define the issues. If he tries to go big rhetorically but small in dollar terms, which is what he's been doing, that will be widely understood as a cynical attempt to win votes without actually improving the lives of Americans and their children and as further evidence that he has no vision, can't lead, and should be retired to private life.

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