Rebuild the Northeast, and America

We stopped last time with three important observations: First, government built the Northeast and government tore it down. Second, revitalizing the northeast depends on identifying and supporting the comparative advantages of the states, the region and the nation. And third, each problem creates opportunities.

So what are those problems, comparative advantages, and opportunities?

One is physical. Our transportation systems are based on half century old plans. Our real estate development system is designed to magnify transportation problems. Our communications systems have major gaps. Our energy costs are out of bounds – to drill in more difficult places, and from spills, carbon and greenhouse gases. Working families spend nearly a third of their income on transportation. We pay enormously for sprawling, inefficient transit systems and they are a drag on our economy. We will not be able to step up to more efficient transportation systems without government investment.

Another is health. A seventh of our national income goes to health care. And the return on those expenditures is surprisingly poor. Both the organization of health care and our social and public health policies aggravate health risks. Pharmaceutical companies spend massively but their corporate financial goal leads them to develop products that must be purchased repeatedly and regularly, rather than cheaper but unprofitable innoculations and public health measures. Few of us have access to the best available health care but everybody has access to the worst combinations of nutrition and lifestyle. When, years ago, we moved from a St. Louis suburb to New York City we got stronger because we had to walk everywhere. Public health is complex but poor policies are enormously costly. We pay dearly for inefficient health systems that drag down our economy. We cannot step up to more efficient health care systems without government investment.

A third is the melting pot. We don’t owe everything to immigrants. Immigrants come because of the synergies from the society we’ve built. The diversity, the mixing, of all of us, immigrant and native, gives this country its vitality. Where people run away from that vitality to separate themselves from immigrants, they create backwaters. Luckily, a strength of New York and the Northeast has been our welcome to people from other places and with other lifestyles but who are dedicated to making their own contributions to the world we share.

Our national culture war too often says stay out, stay away, and treats science education as dangerous. Here too the Northeast has a comparative advantage, in support for science education, as well as tolerance of difference. The late President of the University at Albany, Kermit Hall, explained to an audience of business leaders, that tolerance fosters the area’s development because the creative thinkers march to their own drummers, follow different paths. Places that are friendly to them invite establishments which depend on innovation. That mix, of science and tolerance helps bring major institutions to the region.

Our future depends on bringing down the price we pay in pollution, health, and cash, and staying ahead of the global curve in science, diversity, and our partnership with good government.

The Founders of our country weren’t afraid of government. They often differed over which government was an appropriate partner. But they used government to create a powerful country. Government was a regular partner in early investment, some of which inevitably went sour – as do the vast majority of private startups. But government was a crucial partner in creating the banking, communications, transportation and public health systems that built our country by making crucial tools cheap – to ship, travel, communicate, fuel and man the industrial revolution.

Government cannot stay out if America is to remain a great nation.

This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 17, 2010.


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