Thursday, January 29, 2009

Storm Infrastructure in America

Rachel Maddow, the radio and evening television pundit, is a rare breed. A self-avowed liberal, graduate of Stanford, Rhodes Scholar, and PhD, Dr. Maddow is a 35-year-old model of a, if not "the", future of liberal politics. I guess.

Aside from that however, Maddow proves on her new hit show (which often beats Larry King in the time slot) that political orientation does not need to immunize anyone or any issue. (Her smackdown interview of Rod Blagojevich will go down in history. Anyone looking for some Blogojevich schadenfreude will enjoy her multi-part interview in which he seems to admit to his crimes in several trip-ups.)

More importantly however, were Maddow's opening remarks about the sad statement of the condition of American infrastructure revealed -- yet again -- by a normal winter storm putting over 1 million Americans in the dark, in the dead of winter, with no power.

Her most powerful remark is how we are accustomed to hearing about the unimaginable terrorist "force multiplier" threats that could target our nation's energy grid, and yet time and again, including what we experienced ourselves right here in Houston, the nation's energy grid shows just how frail a condition it is in and how it cannot stand up to even run-of-the-mill seasonal storms.

This commentary leads into a revealing and frustrating discussion with US Oregon Representative Pete DeFazio about his efforts to get the new stimulus bill to include more job-providing, long-term infrastructure projects that Americans overwhelmingly support.

On this issue there can be no legitimate debate about the broad outlines:

1. Economic stimulation policy depends on increasing demand. Any attempt to stimulate supply by providing tax breaks for producers and investors inevitably fails because if the demand doesn't exist, you can, as we have with banks, provide all the money you want, but that money will just sit on the sidelines until there are buyers to produce for. Scared money doesn't spend.

2. Economic stimulus to increase demand must increase both spending power and actual spending in the private markets. It's no use to give money to those who in fear will put the money under a mattress. Therefore targeting money toward those who need it most, who have no choice but to spend it, is most effective. Therefore stimulative policy must focus on low-income workers and families who will spend. In addition, without jobs, those who must spend cannot. Therefore the other prong of stimulative spending must focus on jobs: preventing job loss and creating new jobs, preferably private-sector jobs that can be sustained in a recovery.

3. Simple tax rebates to those who will not spend and tax cuts to those with incomes who pay the most taxes (and by definition do not need to spend immediately) are not stimulative in this kind of environment. Most economists suggest long-term policy should include a fixed tax policy and stimulative/arresting policies from the Fed. Tax policy, except adjusting to route money immediately into the economy to those who will immediately spend that money (such as through payroll tax credits, which take effect immediately), is not effective for immediate stimulus.

4. The best investments of government spending must provide for future returns on that investment enough to cover future debt repayments and instill confidence in global investors of American national debt. The entire stimulus bill will be borrowed money. In order to accomplish that confidence, foreign investors need to see the US increasing its production capacity. Tax cuts do not do that; that approach is what ballooned - along with unrestrained spending - the national debt in the past 8 years past $11 trillion in an economy that has been producing $13 trillion annually. However, infrastructure investments do work.

The most famous infrastructure success story came from the Eisenhower administration in the $500 billion National Highway bill that established the Interstate highway system in every state. The modern parallel, aside from repair and maintenance of our roads, would be creating new high speed rails ("bullet trains" that don't exist yet in this country) but will reduce demand of foreign fossil fuels and provide new much more reliable and convenient regional travel (think uber-convenient substitute to Southwest Airlines).

Nonetheless, the idea that Houston's evacuation efforts involve many many hours of gridlock on highways, and the midwest to northeast loses power in the middle of a standard winter storm for over a million people, and Houston and other gulf coast cities can lose power for weeks and even months in the wake of a mid-tier hurricane -- it's just unacceptable in America. It's incompatible with the American way of life, and it presents an enormous security risk.

Enjoy Maddow's opening segment (and then watch the Blagojevich segments in the link above for a good laugh as he crashes and burns under Maddow's withering, crouching interview worthy of any world-class legal team).