Obama Pledges Public Works on a Vast Scale

Early in December, President-elect Barack Obama promised to create the largest public works construction program since the inception of the interstate highway system a half century ago as he seeks to put together a plan to resuscitate the reeling economy.

With jobs evaporating and the recession deepening, Mr. Obama began highlighting elements of the economic recovery program he is trying to fashion with Congressional leaders in hopes of being able to enact it shortly after being sworn in on Jan. 20. His address on the subject followed the report on Friday indicating that the country lost 533,000 jobs in November alone, bringing the total number of jobs lost over the past year to nearly 2 million.

Mr. Obama’s remarks showcased his ambition to expand the definition of traditional work programs for the middle class, like infrastructure projects to repair roads and bridges, to include new-era jobs in technology and so-called green jobs that reduce energy use and global warming emissions.

Mr. Obama’s plan, if enacted, would be in part a government-directed industrial policy, with lawmakers and administration officials picking winners and losers among private projects and raining large amounts of taxpayer money on them.

It would cover a range of programs to expand broadband Internet access, to make government buildings more energy efficient, to improve information technology at hospitals and doctors’ offices, and to upgrade computers in schools.

“It is unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption,” Mr. Obama said. “Here, in the country that invented the Internet, every child should have the chance to get online.”

President Bush and many conservative economists have opposed such large-scale government intervention in the economy because it supports enterprises that might not survive in a free market. That is the crux of the argument against a government bailout of the auto industry.

But Mr. Obama proposes to charge ahead, asserting that extensive government support is needed to preserve and create jobs while building the latticework of a 21st century economy.

Although Mr. Obama put no price tag on his plan, he said he would invest record amounts of money in the vast infrastructure program, which also includes work on schools, sewer systems, mass transit, electrical grids, dams and other public utilities. The green jobs would include various categories, including jobs dedicated to creating alternative fuels, windmills and solar panels; building energy efficient appliances, or installing fuel-efficient heating or cooling systems.

Critics to Obama’s idea contend that public works spending is a poor response to tough economic times, saying it has not been a reliable catalyst for short-term growth and instead is more about politicians gaining points with constituents.  Mr. Obama implicitly tried to counter such arguments by invoking the federal interstate highway program, seen as one of the most successful public works efforts in American history.  Mr. Obama also responded to criticism of waste and inefficiency in such programs by promising new spending rules, like a requirement that states act quickly to invest in roads and bridges or sacrifice federal money.  Time will tell who is right in this potential solution to our economic woes.

Source:  NY Times

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