In the Arena

Eat Your Creamed Spinach

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The President was masterful, and prohibitively Cheshire catty, in his debt-ceiling press conference Monday morning. He was in the position he likes best: way above both parties, asking sacrifices from all, the grownup in a roomful of Congressional infants. He almost seemed to be enjoying himself, which is nice–he deserves a little pleasure amidst the trash talk. I suspect that he suspects a $2 trillion or so deal can be had…but I”ll leave those machinations to my able colleague Jay Newton-Small. Far more important in my little columnar world was Obama’s mention–twice in one press conference!–of one of my favorite government programs, a National Infrastructure Bank.

The idea, which Obama touted during the campaign and then forgot about, is simple, efficient…and European, where this sort of thing already exists. The bank would be a public-private partnership designed to offer low-income bonds to cities and states for major projects. The projects would be chosen by an independent board of governors, as opposed to House and Senate Appropriators–which is my favorite part, since it would create a more rigorous “race to the top” effect for infrastructure projects, funding only those deemed most worthy and necessary. Private investors, labor unions and others could invest money (especially public employees pension fund money) in the bank to leverage the amount contributed by the government…indeed, as suggested above by former SEIU president Andrew Stern, the billions sitting in U.S. corporations’ foreign accounts could be repatriated as a major, tax-free and interest-yielding investment in our future.

The problem with the infrastructure piece of Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan was that it was rushed, to get the money out and paying salaries to construction workers as quickly as possible. This meant the cash went to the least difficult and imaginative and, um, shovel-ready–road repaving, disproportionately. There are still a lot of bridges that need to be rebuilt out there…and more imaginative projects involving new forms of electrical generation–and some truly big deals like the New York-New Jersey rail tunnel, a new generation of small nuclear power plants and other creative ways to generate electricity without killing the environment.

These projects would produce jobs–and long-term economic efficiencies, which would create more jobs. They would do so in a manner more acceptable to us high-minded sorts than the current pork-laden Appropriations process. This would not be painful, except to the Appropriators who will lose some power (a happy event for the rest of us.) With all the emphasis on cutting the deficit, this is one program that actually might address the real problem we have: rebuilding our economy. It is not the ingestion of peas…it is a delicious side-dish of creamed spinach.

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