Though there are a hundred steps needed to begin turning around the economy, let's get one out of the way right now:
Can we please stop pretending that there are two economies -- one public, one private -- and that each is responsible for holding back the other?
To listen to the debate circulating through the media and presidential campaigns, it would appear that the upcoming election is not just a contest between varying policies, ideologies and personalities, but rather, as some have argued, a battle between public-sector socialists and slash-and-burn capitalists.
The Romney camp would make it seem as if government is an anchor on the economy. Conversely, the Obama campaign castigates the rich as if their low taxes and high private-sector incomes are entirely responsible for our budget deficits.
Both messages, while politically salient, are completely disingenuous. And the sound bites that the campaigns are throwing around -- "You didn't build that" or "It's time for us to cut back on government and help the American people" -- only serve to radicalize those who choose to ignore the two most important truisms of the American economy:
First, there is in reality only one economy. It is huge, valued at more than $15 trillion, and is a conglomeration of public and private spending and employment.
Second, and more importantly, the fortunes of the public and private sectors are inextricably linked. What is good for the private sector is good for the public sector, and vice versa. And anyone who thinks that the two are inherently at odds with each other is necessarily choosing to ignore the innumerable benefits that each provides.
There are of course exceptions, but as is often the case, these exceptions tend to drive public opinion. Difficult-to-fire teachers or overly powerful correctional officers associations remind us that some public-sector employees do hold undue influence to the determent of the citizens they serve. But does the American public really think that the average soldier, teacher, fireman or health inspector is responsible for the current economic malaise?
Conversely, there are similar front-page exceptions in the private sector. Corrupt bankers, or overly influential hedge fund or private equity managers, distort the perception that the private sector is solely about squeezing every last dime from unknowing customers. But let us not forget that private enterprise is the lifeblood of the economy, and that small-business owners and entrepreneurs take untold personal and financial risks in the pursuit of providing the public with new products and services.
Yet neither sector exists in a vacuum.
The roads, bridges and sewers that most businesses utilize may rely on private-sector designs and components, but they were built with public-sector money. American students may learn with private-sector technology or in schools built by private contractors, but they are educated by public employees through public-sector investment. Our soldiers fight with the most advanced privately developed hardware on the planet, but can anyone honestly claim that the funding behind such technology would exist without government-financed research and expenditures?
In fact, America's greatest technological accomplishments -- from the automobile industry to the space program, medical research and the Internet -- were all unquestionably public-private partnerships. Detroit would not have existed without federal highway construction, our aerospace industry would not have existed without NASA and defense spending, and Silicon Valley would not be what it is without our excellent, government-subsidized system of education. And I won't even begin to discuss farm subsidies, tax deductions or the myriad other government grants and contracts that support and sustain both emerging and aging industries alike.
Contrary to what each candidate might imply, Obama in no socialist and Romney would in no way be able to privatize and outsource all of government. Both candidates are intelligent individuals who understand that both government and private enterprise serve fundamental roles in our society and, over the past hundred years, have together produced the most vibrant, creative and productive economy that the world has ever known.
Instead of choosing sides, then, let us embrace the value that each sector contributes to the overall economy. After all, unlike the stock market, our economy is not some zero-sum game. Increased public-sector spending necessarily increases the demand for private-sector products, while increased private-sector employment produces greater tax revenue that in turn pays for those public goods -- schools, roads, the military, research -- that the private sector cannot manage on its own.
So let's ignore the rhetoric, stop parsing each candidate's words, and accept the truth: There is only one American economy, and its vibrancy and sustainability require public-private partnership, not competition.