“So-called” Investment

After noting that China and India are “investing in research and new technologies,” President Obama made investment a major theme of his State of the Union Address. The first Soviet space launch in the 50s spurred us to invest in research and education. Obama wants us to ” invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.” Other countries, he added, are investing much more in infrastructure.

The appeal of that way of thinking obviously bothered Republicans. They clearly have a play-book. Obama’s “investments” are Republicans’ “so-called investments,” repeated by Senators Hatch and McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner, Budget Chairman Ryan, Conference Chairman Hensarling, and Congressmen Paul and Hultgren, plus Fox hosts and analysts. They even snookered PBS and NBC reporters to use the phrase.

But just what does it mean to deride investments? It could mean they dislike these investments. But the Republican attack is broader: that we have no money and government always screws up investments. They want people to agree to leave everything to private industry.

Most on-going public investment is in dying industries, not emerging ones. That’s not Democratic policy of course. The Republicans want to attack government investments they made in an effort to convince us Obama’s proposals can’t work. Do you detect a non sequitur there?

If the point is that no government investments are good, just what happened to our shared public investment in a public water supply, sewage system, public health laboratories, disease control centers and research facilities? Should we give it all back? Or the founders’ public investment to get our banking system started and government investments from Jefferson’s Administration to the present in the roads, bridges, canals, and railroads that helped build this country? All required government support. What’s wrong now is that we aren’t keeping them in repair. Better to use them til they collapse – a few deaths on the highway won’t cost the public much – just a few poor souls who’ll lose their loved ones. Sounds like the way we’ve treated our National Guard and many regular soldiers – they volunteered so it’s their problem to deal with injuries the US won’t.

It also sounds like Republicans have gone bearish on America. Disinvestment is what we did to our inner cities: banks, with government complicity, redlined and refused to invest in African-American neighborhoods, so they inevitably declined. Disinvestment is an invitation to a wake.

Of course there are risks in investments. Private investors as well as public officials guess wrong. But this country was built on the spine of major public investment in our future. Many major corporations thrived because they convinced the government to back their investments – from the telegraph to the telephone and beyond. Many other countries have figured out how to invest in the future. Only Republicans are afraid of our shadow, and lost the confidence that government of, by and for the people can work and lay the groundwork for a better future. Shame on them.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 15, 2011.

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