A Consensus Emerges: Build, and Build Big

Everybody is saying the same thing. Stimulus plans don’t mean tax rebates worth a few tanks of gas and a restaurant dinner. Stimulus plans means new roads and bridges, aid to states so they won’t lay off nurses and teaching assistants, and a down payment on a new energy economy with windmills and commuter rail.

Most importantly, people have turned the corner on money. Stimulus will take real money, measured in hundreds of billions of dollars and percents of GDP. Low estimates put the investment at $300 billion. High ones reach $700 billion. Paul Krugman, with his hot new Nobel prize in economics, recommends “figure out how much help [you] think the economy needs, then add 50 percent.”

The former but not future Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers has changed his tune. No longer should stimulus be “targeted, timely and temporary.” Now it should be “speedy, substantial and sustained.” If he changes the first S to “strategic,” he’ll sound just like the Campaign for America’s Future. “Strategic” points towards energy and education, investments that pay back over time.

Increasingly, even the deficit hawks recognize that this is not the time to worry about deficits. This is the time for action. To paraphrase FDR, when the house is burning, you don’t fret about the cost of the hose.

Over the weekend, president-elect Barack Obama started to define what the New York Times labeled a Vast Economic Stimulus Plan.

“We’ll be working out the details in the weeks ahead, but it will be a two-year, nationwide effort to jumpstart job creation in America and lay the foundation for a strong and growing economy. We’ll put people back to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, modernizing schools that are failing our children, and building wind farms and solar panels, fuel-efficient cars and the alternative energy technologies that can free us from our dependence on foreign oil and keep our economy competitive in the years ahead.”

He is exactly right, and he’s been saying this since the campaign.

In June he told the U.S. conference of Mayors:

Now is not the time for small plans. Now is the time for bold action to rebuild and renew America. We’ve done this before. Two hundred years ago, in 1808, Thomas Jefferson oversaw an infrastructure plan that envisioned the Homestead Act, the transcontinental railroads, and the Erie Canal. One hundred years later, in 1908, Teddy Roosevelt called together leaders from business and government to develop a plan for a 20th century infrastructure. Today, in 2008, it falls on us to take up this call again – to re-imagine America’s landscape and remake America’s future. That is the cause of this campaign, and that will be the cause of my presidency.”

Back then he was estimating expenditures in the $150 billion range – and nowadays that’s rounding error. But back then the Dow was at 12,000 and 1.5 million more people had jobs. It’s nice to see him up the ante.

The American people are behind this too. A June survey by Hart Research showed a country that wants more than quick stimulus. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of voters think the economy is facing “long-term, structural economic problems.” Only one-third (30 percent) say it is a “short-term economic downturn.”

Investing in physical infrastructure is among the most popular of long-term solutions. A June survey by Rockefeller Foundation found 82 percent support for “increasing government spending on things like public-works projects to help create jobs.” Reconstruction will take time and exceed the limits of a single budget cycle – but for long term solutions to long term problems, you don’t “pay as you go.” You invest over time.

We discussed all of this last week at our conference on Real Investment in America. I wrote all about it in our snazzy new report, The Investment Deficit.

Build, baby, build. The consensus is emerging.

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