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December 6, 2008

Mr. Fix It

I think it's worth taking a moment to let the impact of Obama's weekend announcement of the details of his stimulus package sink in by reviewing the NYT's writeup from Sunday. What stunned me was not so much the dollar figure (which is still up in the air anyway) but rather the breadth of what he's talking about. The favored comparison has been to Eisenhower's federal interstate highway program. But even on the low end of the dollar estimate - $400 billion - it would be about double what was spent (in today's dollars) to build the entire interstate highway system. So it should come as no surprise that the list of projects under consideration goes way beyond building roads:
Although Mr. Obama put no price tag on his plan, he said he would invest record amounts of money in the vast infrastructure program, which also includes work on schools, sewer systems, mass transit, electrical grids, dams and other public utilities. The green jobs would include various categories, including jobs dedicated to creating alternative fuels, windmills and solar panels; building energy efficient appliances, or installing fuel-efficient heating or cooling systems.
Those projects directly or indirectly impact every aspect of the economy. Part of this, of course, is the need to find ways to spend $400+ billion - not so easy to do as it turns out. But the scope of this plan is still staggering - we're talking about addressing in a single shot infrastructure shortcomings (if not outright crises) that have been festering for decades. We all knew that Obama represented change - but this is more like an outright transformation of the country.

I'd also take issue with the NYT's "green jobs" category in the above list. Money spent on "mass transit, electrical grids, dams and other public utilities" (and probably investment in our broadband infrastructure, which is also being discussed) should certainly be considered green investments given the outlook of the incoming administration. It's fair to say that the country will be almost unrecognizably greener at the end of this buildout.

In fact, along with funding for winterizing homes and making government buildings more energy efficient (whose importance you can read more about here and here), investing in the national grid may be, from a green perspective, the most significant aspect of the entire stimulus plan. Modernizing and expanding the grid to, among other things, bring it closer to the where our sun and wind resources are is the number two priority of Al Gore's climate plan. For a while, it seemed like the grid improvements would be something that flew under the radar, invisible to congressional appropriators in the competition for limited funding. Now it's just another tick mark on Obama's list.

From a political perspective, that's the most notable thing to me about the stimulus plan. It literally cuts off debate on whole areas of investment that have represented fairly significant conflict over the last decade or so. And this doesn't just apply to new projects - fully funding chronically underfunded existing programs and likely allowing the government to properly staff its departments (hello, new food inspectors!) are some pretty nice fringe benefits to this plan. I guess it's a lot easier to find the money for things when you can just print more of it.

And if he does indeed sign it on January 20th, I'd say it would represent a pretty good first day's work.

Photo by jphilipg used under CC license.

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Anonymous Christopher S. Johnson said...

Is this a 21st Century WPA? Like in the 30's?

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