Failure to invest in public infrastructure and education hurts America’s future

The following is a summary of an opinion piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Cay Johnston:

Let’s take a look at what our nation’s leaders could do better in 2016 to strengthen America’s economy and build a more widely prosperous future.

Government investments are, and always have been, crucial to economic prosperity. Yet starving our public sector has become widely accepted policy. Net public investment per capita at all levels of government, excluding the military, is slipping. The total invested is down to about a half of one percent of our economy. That means our roads, bridges, public buildings, equipment and software are wearing out as fast as we maintain them. By 2020 we need to invest at least $3.6 trillion—roughly one year of federal spending—just to make our infrastructure safe and reliable.

Our physical structures such as roads, dams and sewers are valuable national assets, but our most valuable asset is the gray matter between young ears—into which we must invest more if we are to prosper in the ever more complex future we are entering. Investing in educating young brains is just like investing in your 401(k): you have less to spend now, but much more in the future. Yet taxpayer support for education is waning. State-level taxpayer support for four-year public colleges fell 17 percent from the 2006–2007 academic year to 2012–2013. Federal appropriations fell even more, down 19 percent. At the same time total spending by these public schools rose by $23 billion, or 9 percent—higher tuition and fees explain almost three-fourths of the increase. Higher tuition means fewer students will get college and post-graduate degrees.

It is our research into understanding and mastering the universe, from making more efficient engines to more complex algorithms, that enables economic growth and prosperity—and has spurred such innovations as jet travel, cell phones and the Internet. Yet federal spending on research and development, excluding the military, has been virtually unchanged in this century at about $66 billion per year.

The economic equation here is simple: more public investment in basic science, education and infrastructure equals more wealth, both individual and national.

To facilitate such investment, the smart policy right now would be to take advantage of two closely related opportunities. First, America has a glut of savings at the top, which creates profitable investment opportunities for the corporate sector. Second, we remain in a period of exceptionally low interest rates. This means that the public sector can borrow from those cash-rich people and institutions at almost the lowest interest rates in 700 years. Invest that money in projects that make commerce more efficient, such as roads and water systems, and in making college free for serious students and we will earn huge rewards going forward.

Smart public investments pay for themselves many times over. If you want a smarter, more pleasant and prosperous America, then act. Tell others we need to up our investments in tomorrow by voting for politicians who promise more public investments to create a better future.

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