Let’s start by rebuilding America

The next president, with Congress, will have to put aside stale ideology and engage the federal government in a crash program of job creation — the most potent way to reverse America’s economic decline and growing unemployment. Rebuilding and improving America’s rotting infrastructure — and esprit — will be one of his most potent tools, and the work can’t be exported overseas.

The collapse of an Interstate Highway System bridge in Minneapolis last August, with fatalities and serious injuries, drew public attention to the otherwise invisible issue of decaying public structures and facilities. The need has been underscored by collapsing levees along the flooding Mississippi River, and by Amtrak’s inability to handle a dramatic increase of ridership because of equipment limitations. And, there is our growing awareness that "Old Europe," Japan and China have bypassed creaky America in offering public services in transportation that surpass our own in speed, efficiency and ease of access.

The Reagan era, with its drivel about the allegedly evil role of "big government," has produced decades of appalling neglect of the American public sphere. Aging roads, highways, bridges, dams, clean-and wastewater facilities, parks and the abysmal state of public transit are just a part of the picture. The spiraling cost of fuel has made this neglect much, much worse.

With job-creation stalled as unemployment grows, the investment of billions of dollars in "nation building" in Iraq and Afghanistan injects into the presidential campaign the major issue of nation-building here at home. A study by the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that $1.6 trillion is needed simply to bring existing infrastructure up to date. This estimate does not include modernization and new capital construction to meet the need for new mass transit and light rail lines to deal with stratospheric gasoline costs, plus handling the stresses of environmental degradation, and mitigation of higher sea levels from global warming.

We no longer can indulge in manipulative mythologies about the supposed evils of "big government" as opposed to the achievements of glorious "free enterprise." As jobs are lost at home and exported overseas, with the resulting drop in purchasing power, those who argue for adherence to the "original intent" of our Founders should pay heed to the words of John Quincy Adams. He defined the purpose of civil government as "the progressive improvement of the condition of the governed."

It was in that spirit that President Franklin D. Roosevelt — confronted by the triple assaults of unemployment, business decline and widespread suffering — put the federal government to work providing jobs for millions, while restoring business activity.

It’s worth pondering the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration while riding Amtrak between New York and Washington, which still benefits from the electrification system originally put in place in a partnership between the WPA and the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The next American president must re-read the history of FDR’s massive, almost completely fraud-free federal building projects putting millions of the unemployed to work to reverse the Depression. He must adapt the old lessons to a vast new program of public works. The nominees should debate the ways to a brighter American future, instead of arguing over trifles.

A progressive program of highways, bridges and rail improvements across America will create jobs that feed the purchasing power that feeds the profits of big business. A massive federal approach to alternative energy — farms of wind turbines, solar arrays and, yes, nuclear fission and fusion — will create jobs, and greatly reduce American dependence on foreign oil. Government must also construct huge catch basins to store the rainfall that can water thirsty land in times of drought.

To renew and upgrade the American infrastructure, the next president must reject the myth of trickle-down economics. He will have to re-adjust tax rates upward, and forge new partnerships with private investment. Some private funders have begun to take part in private-public partnerships to do this. The president will certainly have to re-impose the military draft, alongside the alternative of a domestic youth corps to join in the great American re-build. En route, he may have to ration gasoline until the improved capacity of batteries comes along to propel a nation of electric cars and trucks.

One can well expect the self-serving resistance of the great Bloviation Machine, and the corporate and inherited wealth that underwrites it. The federal campaign of public works, they will say, only "weakens the moral fiber" of the needy, destroys the initiative and self-reliance of workers, demolishes the great American "work ethic," with its go-getter individualism that is the "unique spirit of Ah-murika." "Here comes Socialism," they will warn. We have heard all this before, mounted by ideologues who have attacked the federal government while laboring mightily to land government jobs.

The next president must lead us from darkness to the light in a mighty effort to serve the public good by rebuilding America.