- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2009


President-elect Barack Obama has this multibillion-dollar infrastructure plan, and there’s a fair amount of hollering that it’s just the stimulus the economy needs for recovery. It could be something else entirely — a road paved with good intentions leading to you-know-where.

Criticisms begin with the thought it will be the mother of all pork feasts, a politician’s picnic, an extravaganza of waste, and then come other trepidations - that the program won’t kick in soon enough to serve pressing needs, that it won’t provide economic sustenance over the long haul, that it will entail the kind of excess that got us into trouble in the first place and that for every benefit bestowed, an equal or greater benefit will be erased from the private economy.

Mr. Obama promises he won’t let the special interests gobble up these funds meant for the public good, and maybe he won’t, and maybe, too, he will reverse other forces of nature, such as the rotation of the Earth. Note that the nation’s mayors already have thousands of ideas they wish to share with Mr. Obama, and that fast on their heels are governors, environmental groups, business lobbies and others who figure a billion here and a billion there and soon enough their causes are sitting pretty.

Also, by the nature of the thing, the program will be a slog, and the nature of the problem is this: The damsel is tied to the railroad tracks and the train is bearing down on her. Speed of the immediate tax-relief kind is needed, not the long waits entailed in reinforcing bridges or widening highways, some say.

One writer speculates that the economy will have escaped its peril by the time the program fully kicks in, leaving us with an ultra-expensive, outsized solution in search of a crisis.

Might the program nevertheless provide a foundation for growth through the decades, much as President Dwight Eisenhower’s interstate highway system did? Not likely. One expert from the Brookings Institute has written that all sorts of government regulations and political hesitations get in the way of doing the right thing the right way and that the return on highway projects is something like 1 percent. Even if there’s much to do, we haven’t been reticent in spending - something like $100 billion a year each year over the past five on nondefense projects, as another economist, Lawrence Kudlow, has pointed out.

Then there’s another issue that conservatives such as Mr. Kudlow talk about - that government spending “crowds out private investment.” I’ve run across an estimate every job a government program creates probably costs two in the private sector. To be sure, Mr. Obama’s infrastructure program will create jobs in some industries, but, it is suggested, at the expense of jobs in other industries.

Here’s my recommendation: Let’s think all this over, unlike what we did with the $700 billion bailout contrived by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. After a panicky Congress gave the go-ahead, an equally panicky Mr. Paulson went ahead with all kinds of corrections in what he had originally intended. As the press is reporting to the dismay of at least some editorialists, the way in which initial outlays are being used is roughly as clear as swamp mud. The benefits, if any, are anyone’s guess.

And now, Sen. Charles Schumer, New York Democrat, promises to present Mr. Obama with a congressionally passed, multifaceted stimulus package by Inauguration Day, which is a way of saying there will not be nearly enough debate before this possibly damaging deed is done.

It shouldn’t be just a few right-of-center pundits saying that slowing down on a plan costing as much as another $700 billion may be a way of doing quicker good, but anyone who thinks public policy ought to be shaped less by unwarranted decisiveness than by rational deliberation.

Jay Ambrose is formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard News Service.

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