It is easy to become disconnected from history. However, we must consider the past when evaluating the present and our plans for the future, or else risk undermining America’s greatest strengths.
Legitimate concerns about entitlement programs like Medicare, Social Security and welfare have mutated into a historically ignorant view that considers all governmental programs that benefit the public as unnecessary, undesirable and worthy of elimination. As the aged, well-traveled James Fallows discusses in his recent article, “How America Can Rise Again,” such belief is corrosive and incompatible with the well-established methods the U.S. has historically followed to cultural and economic prosperity.
Both parties share blame for creating this destructive new situation – in the 1960s and ‘70s, the Democrats tarnished the image of governmental efforts by creating programs seen as bloated, inefficient and ineffective. Since the Reagan era, Republicans have responded by speaking against and cutting many public programs that had previously received their support.
Successful public investment policy precedes the creation of our current political parties. In the words of historian Kevin Starr: “Through the country’s history, government has had to function correctly for the private sector to flourish. John Quincy Adams built the lighthouses and the highways. That’s not ‘socialist’ but ‘Whiggish.’ Now we need ports and highways and an educated populace.”
The American Society of Civil Engineers regularly evaluates America’s infrastructure: roads, bridges, dams, ports, school buildings, public drinking water, etc. Our overall GPA for the latest evaluation was a ‘D’. The estimated cost of bringing all the systems up to an acceptable level of functioning is $2.2 trillion over the next five years, and this is precisely where our government should have liberally applied economic stimulus funds.
Sadly, it didn’t happen. Stephen Flynn, president of the Center for National Policy, explains the situation concisely: “Engineers don’t usually put things dramatically, but the alarm about infrastructure is real. Our forebears invested billions in these systems when they were relatively much poorer than we are. We won’t even pay to maintain them for our own use, let alone have anything to pass to our grandchildren.”
In addition to the creation and maintenance of infrastructure, healthy government spending plays a critical role in the creation of transformative technologies such as GPS, the Internet and the Human Genome Project. According to Robert Atkinson, founder and president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, these profound scientific achievements couldn’t have happened otherwise. The scale of investment, uncertainty of payoff and risk that profits and benefits would go to competitors are too great for any private company to accept.
Thus, the Internet was created by the Pentagon, GPS by the Air Force (which still operates it) and the Human Genome Project by the National Institutes of Health. This pattern of public investment followed by private industrial growth has been a regular feature of American progress. Accordingly, Atkinson is deeply concerned with the handicapping of our current system.
In the words of Fallows: “America has been strong because, despite its flawed system, people built toward the future in the 1840s, and the 1930s, and the 1950s. During just the time when Frederick Law Olmsted designed Central Park, when Theodore Roosevelt set aside land for the National Parks, when Dwight Eisenhower created the Pentagon research agency that ultimately gave rise to the Internet, the American system seemed broken too. They worked within its flaws and limits, which made all the difference. That is the bravest and best choice for us now.”
If we are going to get our politicians to make decisions geared toward the next 75 years instead of the next election, we must be absolutely clear about what must be done to maintain America’s status as a powerful and respected nation. As Fallows wrote: “The mutually supportive combination of public and private development; the excellence of the universities; the unmatched ability to attract and absorb the world’s talent—these are assets we can work to preserve.”