Democracy and Public Investment

January 30, 2018

What democracy can do is obscured by today’s free market, anti-regulatory, anti-government rhetoric. That rhetoric creates real winners and losers, but taking it at its word, it’s based on an everyone-for-him-or-herself form of individualism. It asserts that our successes and failures are almost solely the result of our personal abilities and denies that what we accomplish always rests in part on what society gives us.

That flatly contradicts reality. This country blossomed because we worked together, with a spirit of cooperation. Cooperation that made associations, large businesses and elective government possible.

Everyone-for-him-or-herself-alone ideologues shouldn’t blind us to the public role in development. America’s Founders knew they needed government. As aptly described in the show Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton, Robert Morris and their colleagues understood the importance of a banking system and had government create it. Across the thirteen original states, Founders used government to open transportation to the west. Washington himself was deeply involved in efforts by Virginia and Maryland. When New York, which had a sea level path to the interior, finally built the Erie Canal, it set the path for industrialization and settlement for a century and a half, and made the North into the powerhouse that won the Civil War.

Today we’ve lost a shared sense of the public investments necessary to continued development, and the foundations of American success are falling apart. Bridges take unsuspecting occupants into the rivers and ravines below. Water systems deliver lead, mercury, and an armory of toxins. Sewage systems poison rivers, people and the living things that depend on them. Trains crash for lack of decent equipment. The electronic grid barely carries ordinary loads. The next solar storm can take the electrical and internet grids down, bringing the country to a lengthy stand-still. American colleges and universities have been the envy of the world but stripping their resources will ensure their replacement abroad and with them the R&D that has been central to American leadership. We are the wealthiest of countries but too cheap to fund our infrastructure, terrified that taking care of America would actually put people to work, or that public spirit in building and rebuilding America will help someone else’s business.

The best stimuli for business are investments in the capacity of the public, infrastructure for getting things done, and rules that create a common floor of good behavior. The idea that everything depends on lowering taxes is pure garbage from people who want their winnings the easy way – by taking them away from the people.

Trump promised to put infrastructure in his budget. It’s hard to know whether he’ll keep that promise, whether enough Republicans will follow him, or whether it would include anything more than a wall on the border or brick and mortar repairs. Public investment could make infrastructure better and more resilient, as so dearly needed in Puerto Rico and on the coasts. Public investment could go well beyond controversial minimum wage laws by offering decent, useful, jobs at livable wages. Public programs could improve the private market by creating a model to compete with, like the public health care option that Obama tried to get.

Madison, Hamilton and their contemporaries had a much more patriotic and mature understanding of what American progress depended on – the people, the whole people, not just a few plunderers appropriating for themselves what should be our birthright.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Jan. 30, 2018.

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Labor Economics

February 14, 2017

The White House isn’t explaining what’s happening to jobs. I once taught labor economics, an issue close to my heart. To some extent, labor is like any other commodity and that’s the problem. Jobs go wherever business can find all the things it needs – the land, transportation, materials, markets, reliable legal relations, at the right prices. And it keeps changing.

We talk about the rust belt as if we did something wrong. Actually we had about a century-long run on the best factory jobs in the country – a ribbon through this state after New York’s government built the Erie Canal and made New York City gateway to the west, turning every city along the Hudson, Mohawk, Erie Canal, and then the great Grand Central Railway into a powerhouse. This area long dominated clothing, technology, science, heavy industry and spawned radio and television networks. Each industry provided resources for newer ones.

But New York’s advantages couldn’t be permanent. For bigger plants with newer methods, business looked for virgin land. Other governments built ports, the Interstates and St. Lawrence Canal, while the aging infrastructure of older cities led firms elsewhere. It couldn’t be permanent. Economic fundamentals inevitably dominate jawboning and presidential rhetoric.

Workers get cast aside unceremoniously. One of my law students was also a human resources specialist at GE, missing class whenever GE announced layoffs. They had long since let the weakest workers go. Now she had to fire the best and it hurt. But big corporations aren’t sentimental.

What’s a city or region supposed to do? The market doesn’t automatically find the next big thing and put it where former employees can get jobs like those they lost. The market didn’t build America automatically. Government changed British rules. Government built a banking system with resources to fund business, and smooth their cash flow – if you read or saw Hamilton, that’s what he was about, government providing what companies couldn’t. Government built ports, canals, highways, and had the railroads built. Government provided public health facilities, water, sanitation, disease control – which became crucial for business. Government invested in schools, and President Lincoln laid the foundation for the modern state university system. President Wilson sparked the country’s first broadcasting system for the war effort. Almost everything in your hands today has government fingerprints on it – the research and development in fundamental physics that led to the lasers, transistors and chips that run almost everything today.

Yes, governments make mistakes. You think private industry doesn’t? Most businesses fail. But only government can provide the fundamentals, the things that all the businesses in the country, region or route need. Only governments are motivated to look beyond individual companies and work for the region.

Governments have been investing in new forms of power. If governments in coal producing states had the sense to invest in emerging industries instead of dying ones, the coal miners might face a much better transition to good jobs than anything presidential jawboning can produce. But government cannot do it if it is afraid to fail.

Governments need to be thinking about what the emerging industries are, what resources will support growth. Not individual businesses that any group of investors could build on their own, but the underlying fundamentals that make broad development possible. And we may only know which ideas work when we try them.

If government thinks small, we all shrink.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 14, 2017.


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