In the past two weeks, I’ve taken the Amtrak Acela to the Philadelphia and New York stations. In both places there were signs on the train platforms boasting that new construction work there was being paid for by “the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,” that is, the $787 billion stimulus. And what was that work? New “lighting” — so now you can see even better just how disgustingly decayed, undersized and outdated are the rail platforms and infrastructure in two of our biggest cities.
If we were a serious country, this is what the midterms would be about: How do we generate the jobs needed to sustain our middle class and pay for new infrastructure? It would require a different kind of politics — one that doesn’t conform to either party’s platform. We will have to raise some taxes to generate revenue, like on energy or maybe a value-added tax, and lower others, on payrolls to stimulate work, and on multinational corporations to get them to bring the trillion dollars they have offshore back to the U.S. for investment. We will have to adjust some services, like Social Security, while we invest in new infrastructure, like high-speed rail and Internet bandwidth; the U.S. ranks 22nd in the world in average connection speed. And, most of all, we will have to have an honest discussion about how we got in this rut.
How we got into this rut is no secret. We compensated for years of stagnating middle-class wages the easy way. Just as baseball players in the ’90s injected themselves with steroids to artificially build muscle to hit more home runs — instead of doing real bodybuilding — our two parties injected steroids, cheap credit, into Wall Street so it could go gambling and into Main Street so it could go home-buying. They both started hitting home runs, artificially — until the steroids ran dry. Now we have to rebuild America’s muscles the old-fashioned way.
How? In the short run, we’ll probably need more stimulus to get the economy moving again so people have the confidence to buy and invest. Ultimately, though, good jobs at scale come only when we create more products and services that make people’s lives more healthy, more productive, more secure, more comfortable or more entertained — and then sell them to more people around the world. And in a global economy, we have to create those products and services with a work force that is so well trained and productive that it can leverage modern technology so that one American can do the work of 20 Chinese and, therefore, get paid the same as 20 Chinese. There is no other way.
For those of us who live outside the US in the “West”, the issues and the challenges are similar – the need to re-invent ourselves has never been greater. – IT