I don't know about you but I haven't been sleeping well lately. Finding myself unable to nod off as I recap the day's economic news in my head, rather than lying awake tossing and turning I've taken to reading back copies of the paper. You know, that source of news your parents and grandparents used to read that leaves your fingers stained with ink. In my nightly quest to understand America's reluctance to stimulate the economy by employing legions of Americans building what the country needs rather than what Wall Street dictates, I came across an interesting article in the New York Times from February 6.
"Japan's Big-Works Stimulus Is Lesson" by Martin Fackler explores the lessons of Japan's trillions of dollars in infrastructure spending to bring a Japan felled by the real estate bubble of the late 1980s back from the brink. According to Fackler, "During those nearly two decades, Japan accumulated the largest public debt in the developed world -- totaling 180 percent of its $5.5 trillion economy -- while failing to generate a convincing recovery."
Keeping in mind the stark differences between the economies of the US and Japan one of the lessons that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, then a young financial attaché in Japan, "took away from that experience is that spending must come in quick, massive doses, and be continued until recovery takes firm root." Geithner and other economists also learned from the Japanese experience that what gets built makes a difference. "Public works," said Toshihiro Ihori, an economics professor at the University of Tokyo quoted in the Times article, "get the best results when they create something useful for the future."
Though economists will divide as they always do along partisan political lines, "useful for the future" (and present) has to mean infrastructure investment in the urban mass transit and high speed rail projects successive Democratic and Republican administrations alike have repeatedly ignored.
So with the Christmas and New Year's forecast for southern California showing temperatures dipping into the low 70s I'm making real investment in fast trains that run where people live and want to go my wish for the New Year. Call me naïve but what's wrong with asking Santa, the Maccabees, and Uncle Sam for stuff we need rather than more for GM, AIG, and Citibank? If one can't dream what's the point of the holidays anyhow.
Continuing with the infrastructure stimulus theme, it was a news item I read while not sleeping about Vice President Joe Biden's trip to north Georgia to deliver the first stimulus dollars that underscores how far we've fallen in our stature as a light among nations.
Am I the only one who sees the irony in the government making its first stimulus investment in high speed internet for rural communities instead of high speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco for tens of millions of gridlocked Californians? Don't get me wrong; I know there's a gaping digital divide, but shouldn't the country's first infrastructure spend capture the imagination of the public with something grander than a bobbin of fiber-optic cable? As a proud member of the Lalaland Berkeley Axis as my neocon uncle calls me, I know a missed photo op when I see one and this one you can drive a bullet train through.
Like my former neighbor who grew up on New York's Upper East Side and at a dinner party once declared about the needs of the urban poor, "I'm from the inner city," I too know best what the public really needs. Oh to have been a fly on the wall later that night when she thanked her husband for helpfully pointing out that Park Avenue isn't the inner city.
Size matters! It's OK to say that as we're talking stimulus. What's happened to this country? Wasn't it Robert F. Kennedy who (quoting George Bernard Shaw) said, "Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not..." If Google and memory serve that flawed but inspiring leader was talking about changing the status quo in this country not buying some extra pencils and paper for America's classrooms.
Thanks to Vice President Biden's important gesture (The high speed internet project's total price tag is $41 million), instead of singing, "I've been working on the railroad," north Georgians will soon be poking their new friends in LA on Facebook. Sure that's important, but come on people, or more precisely, President Hope, give us some of that grand vision of a better America back on the tracks that a narrow majority of us voted for!