Sunday, September 17, 2006

Public Works and the New Deal of the 21st Century

What is the purpose of a good government? What should its aims be? I think the best investment for the future should be guided by two key aims. A more comprehensive, American public transit infrastructure and a massive investment in energy and generally hard science research.


To help create the new deal of the 21st Century, we need both investment in ideas and investment in infrastructure. In a quick and simple sense, government should develope the systems and structures that will help build a strong, essentially free market system for the future. This is not the abstract future of our grandchildren, but that of our own future, 5 years, 10 years, and 25 years from now. Now, this discussion could devolve into a sort of philosophical discourse on what is appropriate for the federal government to undertake, but I leave that for my post on a New Federalism (see sidebar). The current policy of the government seems to be to operate more like a patronage machine for the favored doners. See ( Clearly, that's a philosophy of "I'll get mine now, and let's not think about tomorrow.

We like to belive in the power of the market, but there are certain large scale enterprises that benefit the commons that the market cannot feasibly handle. This is where the government should step in to help direct investment to plan for the civic future. This is not to suggest a planned economy, but more of to help guide fundamental realingments of policy, into which private funding will then flow. For example, I need only point out our current highway policies. We expand and build, and the private market fills in with certain developments suited to our arterial highway system expansion. The public sector leads with a certain key development, and private investment exploits the opportunities this creates. Another good example is the Hoover Dam and Las Vegas, or the Tennessee Valley Authority and the South. Even the development of early America was spurred by the construction of the Eire Canal and the transcontinental railroad.

Unless you subscribe to the most extreme libertarianism, there is a recognized need for public sector investment. This is recognized through investment in Universities, roads, public health, police, fireman, schools, etc. This is necessary to defeat the problem of free riders, and also to destroy negative incentives that could, for example, encourage people to not pay private fees to send their children to schools or pay for fire protection. A self interested person could choose to reject such payments for short term gain. Regardless, sometimes investment is best served by the market, other times it is of a scale and scope that requires national investment, as in investment by the government.


When Sputnik entered the stratosphere, there was a general recognition in America that a new focus was necessary to prove the superiority of the free mind. The same challenge exists today, witht the omniprescent existence of oil-based regimes that export demogaugery and fundamentalism much in the same way the Soviet Union sought to export communism. We helped bypass the claims of superiority of the USSR by putting a man on the moon. In the same way, we should bypass the smug preaching of the oil regimes by undercutting the basis of their power: energy in a hydrocarbon society.

The development of alternative energy is not a matter of preference. It is a matter of survival for liberal democracies. Our economies, in this post-industrial age, are energy. We use it in every facet of our existence, from the internet, power to our PC's, our cars and trucks that transport ourselves and our goods, and even the toast we have for breakfast. Our use of energy in the future is something that is not in doubt: we will continue to use it, and the world will undoubtedly seek to use more. There must be freedom from the oil we pump from the earth to a harnessing of the energy which is the source of oils power: the power of molecular connections and the power of the sun.

The only way to do this is to spark a new scientific race in America. This should be done in three key wasy: the construction of new, government sponsored research facilities, new engineering universities focused on improving the studies of sheer energy itself, efficent use of energy, and general scientific applications; and the establishement of a massive scholarship program focused on the youth of America to funnel them into these new instituitions.

Government Energy Research

It is a key national security goal that America have baisc energy independence from non-democratic regimes. These countries focus on one thing: slavish support of those in power. In a free market, we have little to fear, but in a system based on obeying the will of one individual over those of the general populace, there is no way a market based system can efficently devine the future. The only solution is to trade energy needs with other free market systems (and a system can only be free if there is no undue political inteference with the means of production by non-market forces). Such a system is essentially impossible today, because the entire system is based on hydrocarbons (oil, natural gas, coal, etc.). Institutions devoted to pure research of energy must be established, in numerous locations across America, to help wean ourselves, and the world, off hydrocarbons.

Oil is valuable. But it is also valuable as a manufacturable commidty. We should endeavor not to simply burn away this resource of many uses, but ensure it can continue in our manufacturing chain throughout numerous generations.

Another important factor in establishing these facilites is that they should be located in areas of America that have suffered recent economic depressions. As our economy evolves, it is tragically true that certain secotors are left behind. It is these areas that the government should invest to help create the industries of the future (which leads me to my next point).

New Energy Universities

When it comes to manipulating the elements to create new possibilites, nothing beats engineering. America has some of the best engineering instituitons in the world, but that doesn't mean we can't use more. We should encourage the founding of new state insitutions (especially in historically economically regressing areas), both through the use of state funds (see "new federalism" at sidebar) and through private encouragement. No reason for Bill Gates or Buffet not to found new universities for the 21st century, much like Rockefeller founded the University of Chicago for the 20th Century. There should be additions to current campuses, but there should also be entirely new campuses created, centered around research labs and the new governmnt research centers, that would provide a fulcrum to both provide jobs to the burgeoning new engineering professions in the public sector, and provide paternships with the private sector. The public sector resarch labs could be a valuable conduit between the Univesity education and private technology transfer initiatives.

Scholarship Program

We must encourage more American scientists. This is easy to accomplish. Heavy government funding for scholarships of disadvantaged youth. With such a progtam, if a student takes math and science in jr. high and high school and perform well, the enterprising child will go to college. This will apply to the traditional poor (both in neglected urban/inner city environments and rural areas), as well as offers to the children of workers who lose their job from globalization.

People like to talk about retraining 50 year old factory workers. That's a tall order, to push an industrial worker like that into the IT sector and expect a quick absorbtion of skills. But it may ease the pain if there is a promise that their children, if they only study in school, will be guranteed a college education in the hard sciences, which will teach them practical facts about the world they inhabit. One of the great existential worries that comes with a loss of a job is the question of the future, and a good parent worries more about the future of their children. Greater investment in the education of these children at the very least gives them the opportunity to succeed.

If we are to invent our way out of our current energy predicatment, we should invest in the intellectual structures that will encourage such investment, and provide the essential raw material of young and dedicated minds for our information economy.

Mass Transit

America's system of mass transit, aside from limited areas on the Eastern seaboard, are frankly embarassing. We had far better transit systems 60 years ago. But we choose to tear them up to build highways to create an Auto-topia. Instead, most cities now have bumper-to-bumper gridlock at rush hour.

The solution is obvious. A new transit paradigm. It should be based on differnet levels of distance and speed. Inter-city travel should be very fast (100 mph +) with very few stops. Slightly slower systems (50 mph +) should feed into these stations. Local feeder routes should feed into these mid-level stations (25-50 mph). Light rail/subway/bus to regional to national systems.

Naturally, this requires heavy investment by the public sector. And there shoudl be assurances that this work is done by Americans. Managers must swear, under penalty of law, that their workers are Citizens (or the appropriate level of immigrant worker: see Homeland security and immigration post). Willful ignorance will not be tolerated. To avoid complaints about companies unable to find competent workers, there will also be money available for training programs in the interested states.

With any large government project, there is always the danger of public investment pulling resources away from the capital and labor of the private sector. But there is also a danger that exists from inaction on this front. National Security dictates that a comprehensive transit system be developed, both for use in the case of national emergencies and to help America cope with its oil addicition. If costs are driven up in such a fashion as to discourage sprawl (as should be done with tax policy as well), and more energy efficent development is planned, then such an effect is actually a benefit. Already, road building sucks in a massive amount of money in America, so redirecting some of these emminent domain actions and construction costs to rail transit isn't really much of a change.

Most importantly, these acts will go slowly. Major transit systems will likely take many years to come online. The funds for this work will go only to states who are willing; the system should not be unilaterally imposed. This will allow for a variety of ideas and actions, and the "laboratory of the states" can hopefully lead the way, creating new efficencies. Additionally, the research of the new school facilities and grants can also focus on promoting infrastructure improvements.


America is a land of modernism and progress. But the acheivements that helped create the American 20th Century did not happen in a vaccum. They often happened with express or implied government support. The American people and the greater humanity deserve cutting edge energy research for a cleaner, more economical future. America also deserves a state of the art mass transit system. Government should support both of these laudable goals.

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