Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Where the ideological rubber meets the road

(Photo Credit: The Oregonian)

I didn't want to comment on the bridge collapse for a while so that it didn't seem like I was playing off emotions (ditto for those 6 minors in central Utah) and because I wanted to make sure my family out there was alright. I have grandparents and an uncle who live in Minneapolis and my uncle Rob regularly commuted across it (my grandparents can see the bridge outside their dinning room window).

But it occurred to me that how one viewed the bridge collapse depended to some extend on one's political belief system. Liberals saw it as the symptom of the folly of tax cuts. Conservatives saw it as a symptom of the folly of government spending and programs.

[Republican] Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota twice vetoed legislation to raise the state’s gas tax to pay for transportation needs.
Despite historic highs in transportation spending, the political muscle of lawmakers, rather than dire need, has typically driven where much of the money goes. That has often meant construction of new, politically popular roads and transit projects rather than the mundane work of maintaining the worn-out ones.

That is why the federal government spent half a billion dollars on a bridge in Alaska to an island with less than 100 people on it yet declines to spend money on actual maintenance and repair of existing infrastructure.

During the 1930s, FDR put millions of people to work through public works projects which including the building of bridges. This is the liberal approach to economic stimulus, as even today, folks like John Edwards propose similar efforts to rebuild places like New Orleans. The conservative approach can be seen through the pandering GOP presidential wannabes. Giulliani suggested that cutting taxes would pay for bridge repair via the economic stimulus that it "inevitably brings."

True, the WPA program was ruled unconstitutional and didn't get the US out of the Great Depression (massive government spending for WWII did and Eisenhower did build all those freeways) but the Laffer curve that conservatives since Reagan have fallen in love with hasn't worked out that well either.

So what to do? Well obviously, the immediate solution is to find out how and why the 35W bridge collapsed and build a better one near there. The longer term solution however, is a lot less politically sexy. Renovating our nation's infrastructure is hard to show off if you are a Congressman but is deadly necessary. And I believe it is a good form of economic stimulus.

We don't have to limit ourselves to fixing bridges and worn out roads. We can update our nation's electrical grid, which is dangerously at its limits. We can build a nation-wide wireless internet/telecommunications network to ensure that our country continues to lead the world in innovative technology. We can update our air control towers to use modern radar/GPS/etc, not the green-screen 50's radar of today that is bound to cause an accident eventually.

Tax cuts and credits, when directed at the low and middle class, are extremely effective in stimulating the economy. Sales and payroll tax holidays/relief are good policy. Bush style tax cuts and rebates are not.

If we are wise with our money, not only will deaths like those on 35W be avoided, but our economy can go strong. But if we only look to our immediate self-interest, both suffer.

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