This morning, after the obligatory sideswipe at the Tea Party movement, Tom Friedman gets to the meat of his column:
We need to raise gasoline and carbon taxes to discourage their use and drive the creation of a new clean energy industry, while we cut payroll and corporate taxes to encourage employment and domestic investment. We need to cut Medicare and Social Security entitlements at the same time as we make new investments in infrastructure, schools and government-financed research programs that will spawn the next Google and Intel. We need to finish our work in Iraq, which still has the potential to be a long-term game-changer in the Arab-Muslim world, but we need to get out of Afghanistan — even if it entails risks — because we can’t afford to spend $190 million a day to bring its corrupt warlords from the 15th to the 19th century.
The emphasis is mine. I agree with a lot of that but let’s focus on the highlighted part.
Tom Friedman has made it pretty clear what sort of infrastructure work he favors: he’s written repeatedly with effusive praise of China’s gleaming brand new airports and Beijing’s highspeed rail. I have no way of knowing for certain but I strongly suspect that the airports he’s so fond of are used mostly by foreigners and wealthy Chinese. According to Gallup in a given year about 44% of Americans fly somewhere. What percentage of Chinese fly in a given year? At least a sixth of Chinese people are living on $1.25 a day. Not likely air passengers. My suspicion would that that the number of Chinese who fly in a given year amount to percentages in the single digits.
At least one Chinese scholar considers Beijing’s highspeed rail system an expensive boondoggle. 94% of Chinese people live on about a third of China’s land area (the area on the coast). Highspeed rail might make sense in a densely populated area like that but makes a lot less sense for tying the coastal areas to China’s mostly uninhabited (and uninhabitable) interior or to tie New York to Los Angeles.
I’m concerned that what Mr. Friedman esteems is something more akin to the old Orient Express where royalty and the ultra-wealthy rubbed elbows in luxurious comfort. Its modern re-imagining is pictured above. What ordinary people experience is something much closer to an old Greyhound Bus terminal so we shouldn’t be particularly surprised, as flying has become more ordinary for ordinary Americans, that our airports have come more to resemble those terminals than the bright shiny monuments to official excess that China’s new airports do. Not to mention the entire cities without residents.
Unless he means something very different than what one would typically understand by new investments in schools, e.g. spending more money on education, I think there’s very little evidence that the problems we face can be addressed by doing that. According to UNESCO the U. S. ranks second (to Norway) in per capita spending on education and has an average 12 years of education per student, the highest in the world (I’m still trying to uncover the median years of education per student). Our per capita spending is larger than Germany’s, France’s, or Japan’s, and it’s nearly an order of magnitude greater than China’s. Is our problem that we’re not spending enough or that we’re not getting value for our money? If it’s the latter new investments won’t address the problem.
How will additional spending on education reach the 40% of students in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles who either fail to graduate from high school or don’t graduate on time?
Government-financed research programs didn’t spawn the current Google or Intel; defense spending with very specific, concrete objectives did. This is not to say that I don’t think that government can play a valuable role in fostering the technologies that will midwife the next big thing. I see very little evidence that research programs have returned much but I think the evidence that we’ve reaped enormous rewards from mass engineering programs, e.g. the space program, the Internet, is undeniable.
Where Mr. Friedman sees necessary infrastructure investment and vital research I see porkbarrel politics and grants for the politically connected. My idea of how we should be spending our infrastructure dollars is on 21st century telecommunications and energy infrastructure, the things that will make the technologies and industries of the 21st century possible.
Which brings us to an important question: who decides what sort of nation we will be building? Technocratic planning will inevitably transmogrify into Lysenkoism and doubling down on existing industries and technologies for reasons of political expediency.
The old, antique, obsolete form of government we had until 70 or 80 years ago here in the United States wasn’t intended to make us the wealthiest or most powerful nation in the world. Its intent was to make us the freest one. Wealth and power have been the byproducts of that objective.
Over the period of the last fifty or sixty years we’ve made enormous strides in extending the blessings of that liberty to all of our citizens. That simply wouldn’t have happened without the intervention of the federal government. In my view the political struggle in which we are now engaged is a struggle to determine whether more intervention from the federal government will bring us even greater prosperity with still more freedom or kill the goose that has laid the golden eggs and make us both poorer and less free than we have been. There’s a genuine difference of opinion on this question and the facts of the matter remain in dispute.