The New Republic's Senior Editor John Judis has a column out today concerned that Obama's stimulus is too modest and doesn't adequately prepare a new basis for American prosperity - and that high speed rail should be at the core of the solution.
First, his assessment of the problem:
Still, I worry that the president elect is underestimating the problem he and the country faces.
We may not simply be facing a steep recession like that of the early 1980s, from which we can extricate ourselves in a year or two, but something resembling the Great Depression of the 1930s....There's much to like in Obama's plan. But there are two important ways he may have to go further. Most economists agree that what finally pulled the U.S. out of the Great Depression was military spending for World War II....I am not suggesting that the United States start a world war in order to solve the world's economic problem. But I am suggesting a strategy that could be called the fiscal equivalent of war.
It would consist not merely of updating or repairing the nation's infrastructure, but in undertaking massive new investments that would expand the scope of American industry, and address other urgent problems in the process: global warming, over-reliance on petroleum, and the need to revive America's domestic manufacturing capabilities--not just to provide jobs, but also to provide tradeable goods that can reduce the country's current account deficit.
This blog has made similar arguments since March of 2008, so it's good to see a prominent political magazine getting into the act. This economic crisis is as serious as it gets, but Obama has not shown he grasps that. The stimulus is laden down with tax cuts for business and block grants to state DOTs for transportation projects - which in most states are highway projects.
So Judis argues Obama needs to more centrally embrace a much bolder economic stimulus - high speed rail.
One area that is ripe for such investment--and that is not, from what I have seen, a declared priority of the Obama administration--is high-speed rail....Investing in high-speed rails would be very expensive, but unlike tax cuts--the benefits of which can be siphoned off in the purchase of imported goods--the money spent would go directly to reviving American industry and improving the country's trade balance. That doesn't just mean jobs creating dedicated tracks or new rail stations: Though the U.S. abandoned train manufacturing decades ago to the French, Germans, Canadians, and Japanese, this kind of production could be undertaken by our ailing auto companies or aircraft companies--if the federal and state governments were to place orders. And building trains that would run on electricity would be a paradigmatic example of the "green jobs" that Obama often touts.
What Judis is explaining is a key value of both HSR and the stimulus. If we are going to spend nearly $800 billion, shouldn't we be taking steps to ensure that money stays here in the US, building things that will provide long-term value?
So far Obama has been making the consistently wrong moves on the stimulus, and even members of his own party are expressing concern and criticism. It's time for the president-elect to offer the bold solutions he promised in the campaign, and putting HSR at the center of a Green New Deal as John Judis suggests would be an excellent way to start.
UPDATE: The Judis article is getting lots of coverage around the blogs: Matt Yglesias, Atrios, and Ryan Avent, to name a few. Yglesias and Avent seemed too willing to accept that HSR can't be built quickly - the beauty of Judis's argument was that we needed to accelerate how quickly we can build sustainable transportation infrastructure. Environmental rules are good, and surely there are ways we can improve them to help get good projects built more quickly. Too often those rules are posited as working against mass transit. They ought to be working together.