I must admit I have watched very little of the Republican presidential debates thus far. From what I hear they have not been terribly entertaining so I guess I haven’t missed much. That decision seemed to be verified the other night when during a timeout while watching the Saints-Lions playoff game, I flipped over to the debate and they were discussing…..contraception. Really?!?!
Well, a little later the game started to get out of hand and I flipped back and caught a question on….infrastructure! YES! So I listened, hopefully.
What I got instead, was a series of answers repeating the candidates’ basic economic talking points “jobs, lower taxes, less regulation, etc.” Former Speaker Newt Gingrich did address the actual question for a few moments, but otherwise it didn’t happen. They drifted off into other things and the questioner did nothing to bring it back.
I don’t want to pick on the candidates, they are doing what is best for their campaigns, and frankly Democrats do it too. I DO sort of want to pick on the questioner who asked a question and did little to bring the discussion back to infrastructure.
Here’s the problem, as I see it: Politicians of both parties seem to see infrastructure as simply an excuse to talk about whatever their pet issue might be. They may see it as an excuse to swerve into taxes and regulation as the debaters did the other night. Sometimes, they see it as a way to talk about how many jobs a project might create, which happens on both sides though perhaps more often on the Democratic side.
Don’t get me wrong, the jobs that are created by the project itself are very important. And the tax and regulatory issues are important ones. But the real purpose of transportation infrastructure is to move people and products to destinations and markets. That is how you build a competitive society, how you build an economy that can grow. You don’t lay pavement just to create a job that day. You lay it to move goods and people for years and decades to come; to build a long-term competitive economy.
That kind of talk is totally absent in our national infrastructure discussion. I don’t think the Chinese or the Emiratis, for example, are putting transportation projects in place because they want to reduce the unemployment rate. They do it because they know their futures as competitive nations depend on it.
To be fair, that’s what we did in this country when we built our system of airports and when we built the interstate highway system. Some have declined to accept the comparison to what is happening overseas, saying they are just catching up in those places to what we have already done. But it is that kind of complacency that helped bury the steel industry when others were modernizing factories and technology and our industry was just relying on trade restrictions and dumping petitions to protect itself. We do not want to go down that road.
How we stack up does matter, as I argued in San Diego at our annual conference. But we will never get there as long as our political leaders, of both parties, use infrastructure as an excuse to veer into partisan talking points on taxes or jobs or whatever. We need to tell it like it is, tell the truth about WHY we build infrastructure, and then act accordingly.