US in Dire Need of Home Improvement

Floods ravage the Midwest, as the hodgepodge system of levees is overwhelmed. Twenty-four are dead; damage is estimated at $15 billion and counting. The cost to food supplies has yet to be felt.

A bridge falls in Minneapolis, killing 13 people. A 100-year-old sewage valve explodes in Manhattan, terrorizing residents and shutting down much of lower Manhattan. And New Orleans still hasn't recovered from Katrina.

America is literally falling apart. Our infrastructure is old, outmoded and wearing out. Roads, bridges, waters and sewage systems, the electric grid, broadband, airports, public schools -- all have staggering unmet needs. America has become a place of private wealth and public squalor.

The American Society of Engineers estimates that the United States will need to invest $1.6 trillion over five years to bring our infrastructure up to sensible standards. That's "trillion" with a T. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that, on water systems alone, the annual spending gap today is about $19.4 billion for infrastructure modernization, and $18.1 billion in operations and maintenance.

This is a national emergency. The disrepair and decrepitude of our public systems isn't simply aggravating; it is massively costly. Schools in disrepair make children think we don't care about their education. Crowded roads in disrepair cost Americans hours from their families or their work and rack up millions in damage to cars and bodies. Inefficient transport and communications makes American business less competitive in the global economy. If we want to maintain a high-wage economy, we have no choice but to sustain a modern infrastructure, a world-class education system and robust public research and development.

In 2000, the United States was celebrating a budget surplus. It was a time to make significant investments in our infrastructure and our people. Instead, Bill Clinton -- beleaguered by the Gingrich Congress -- called for paying down the national debt, at the time lower as a percentage of GDP than any other industrial nation. George Bush, of course, called for massive tax cuts, skewed primarily to the already wealthy. Bush won the election; the Democratic majorities in Congress bowed to his wishes.

Instead of building modern public schools, safe levees and bridges, or durable water and sewage systems, the money went disproportionately to the second yacht, the larger mansion, the private jet of the wealthiest Americans who were already pocketing most of the rewards of economic growth. Then came Iraq, and what Nobelist Joseph Stiglitz estimates will be about $3 trillion squandered in a war that should never have been fought.

For conservatives, this was a conscious and purposeful set of choices. They wanted to "starve the beast" of the federal government. They believed that top-end tax cuts would generate growth and the benefits would trickle down to others. They believed that Iraq would be a "cakewalk." Led by President Bush, the Republican Congress simply squandered the money without coming close to making the investments we need.

This is one of many challenges that the next president will inherit. The next president would be wise to stop spending $12 billion a month in Iraq and start spending it here at home. Speak frankly to Americans about the scope and depth of our needs; augment federal funds with loan guarantees to mobilize pension fund assets. And lay out a major program to rebuild America.

Or alternatively, we can pay far more because of washed-out communities, collapsed bridges, grid-locked citizens, badly educated students and workers, and corporations finding it increasingly hard to compete.

--Jesse Jackson

(c) Copyright 2008 Digital Chicago, Inc

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