Enough Shovels

Its exact provenance remains a mystery, but over the past month or so the phrase “shovels in the ground” has become a touchstone of the political vocabulary. “If we’re going to really make infrastructure work,” Governor Ed Rendell said at the National Governors Conference in November, “we have to have shovels in the ground quickly.” In Colorado, Bill Ritter has “100-plus projects that we could have shovels in the ground in 90 days.” Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, too, wants to “put shovels in the ground and paychecks in workers’ pockets.”

When politicians start handing out shovels, there’s usually a pile of horse manure nearby.

Taking their cues from President-Elect Obama, who has promised “the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s,” governors are touting infrastructure investment by the federal government as a quick fix to their states’ woes, an engine of job creation, and a way to jumpstart economic recovery. Talking about “shovels in the ground” helps them conjure a scene right out of WPA propaganda: sturdy American workmen stand at the ready, shovels in hand, dutifully awaiting the go-ahead from their Governors. Everybody is ready to start digging our way out of this mess, right away.

Obama himself said over the weekend on Meet the Press that the top priority of his plan would be “shovel-ready” projects. Put aside for the moment the question whether this is the right priority: it is certainly expedient, given the political pressures from the states. My concern is whether in responding to the economic emergency and to all those shovel-wielding governors, the President-elect will miss the bigger picture or overlook the longer-term benefits that history suggests can be derived from wise infrastructure investment.

To get a sense of how an investment in our nation’s infrastructure can have long term payoff – as well as unintended consequences – just look at the development of the Internet. Better yet, consider a story that apparently is, or at least ought to be, very much on Mr. Obama’s mind these days, and to which he made passing reference in last Saturday’s YouTube address: the story of President Eisenhower’s Interstate project.

The project took shape in Ike’s mind long before he took office. In 1919, Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower joined a military vehicle convoy that traveled from the Zero Milestone marker in Washington, D.C. to California’s Golden Gate. The Transcontinental Motor Convoy’s journey “through darkest America” at a time when there was no national network of roads, and in some places no roads to speak of, was rough going. But it gave Lieutenant Colonel Eisenhower a political education and a feel for the whole country, and helped persuade him that America needed a national highway system. This conviction only grew after General Eisenhower saw firsthand what the Germans had accomplished with the Autobahn system.

After the war, Ike became the political architect of our federally-funded, multi-lane, interstate highway system. A Highway Trust Fund was established to finance the system from Federal gas and motor vehicle taxes, so it would be self-financing and its ongoing development and expansion would not contribute to the Federal deficit. The National System of Interstate and Defense Highways had an important strategic military purpose, but it also promised to relieve congestion in towns and cities and improve farm-to market commerce. By the 1970s, the Interstate had changed the country even more profoundly than the railroad, creating new and more efficient ways to move people and goods, transforming industries and work habits, and determining where and how people lived. Along with television, it made us less regionally diverse, more homogeneous; and it revolutionized how we imagine our freedom. Think Jack Kerouac, or Thelma & Louise.

When President Eisenhower warned the nation against the military industrial complex, he couldn’t have foreseen that the Interstate system he built would give rise to so many of the problems we face today. On a visit to the United States, Khrushchev drew Ike’s attention to what we now know as suburban sprawl; since then, the Interstate has altered forever our landscape and cityscapes. We depend every day on an expensive, dirty, inefficient means of transportation. Now we’ve driven ourselves into a foreign oil rut — which Obama’s National Security Advisor, General James Jones, has rightly characterized as a major national security threat. The Cold War system originally intended to keep us safe now leaves us vulnerable, easily manipulated and exposed.

Rahm Emanuel is right: our current crisis gives us a great opportunity — to think big, and to think strategically. That’s why General Jones has urged us to approach our dependence on foreign oil “with the same degree of seriousness as when General Eisenhower said, ‘let’s build a highway system.’” Seriousness of this order demands more than filling potholes and fixing bridges.

There are a number of proposals already on the table. Building a Smart Grid – using information technology to create a more responsive, resilient and reliable power grid — will help us move energy more efficiently and securely, and lay the groundwork for delivery of alternative energy sources. An Infrastructure Bank could do more than the Highway Trust Fund ever could, especially if it allowed for new combinations of public and private financing. More broadly, we need to fund research, encourage innovators, and provide incentives for new business development. That, in turn, will spur real economic growth and job creation.

Beyond these measures, and I would say above all, we need research that challenges science and engineering, and helps us understand how the decisions we make now might affect our lives, our livelihoods and our liberties in the future.

If, as I believe, Mr. Obama is ready to lead, and not just break ground with the governors, this is the national conversation he needs to start right now. There are plenty of shovels to go around.

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