How We Stopped Investing in the Future: A Florida Case Study

In June 2009, ten Florida Congressmen sent a letter to the Department of Transportation, requesting over $2 billion from the federal government. They wanted to build a high-speed rail line, shuttling passengers from Tampa to Orlando and eventually Miami in only two hours. The money was supposed to come from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the $787 billion “stimulus” bill that newly-elected President Barack Obama signed in February of that year.

Of the ten Florida Congressmen, three were Republicans, and all three had voted against the stimulus: Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Adam Putnam.

This kind of about-face wasn’t unusual. Many Republicans were begging for a piece of the stimulus after they had tried to kill it in Congress. Even party leaders like Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor got in on the action.

John Boehner defended this contradiction by saying that the stimulus would fund “shovel-ready projects that will create much-needed jobs.” Only a few months earlier, he had been saying the exact opposite — and relentlessly trashing anyone who dared to disagree with him.

The Tampa-Orlando rail line really did fit Boehner’s definition. It was shovel-ready because almost all the land and permits were already lined up, and according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, it would create 27,000 jobs.

Moreover, it was good fiscal policy. According to two separate reports, the project would produce an annual surplus of $31 million to $45 million by 2026 — and that didn’t include the much more profitable connection to Miami that was likely to follow.

And it was good environmental policy. High-speed rail emits far less greenhouse gas than cars, especially in densely populated regions like central and southeastern Florida, which is why overflowing cities in China, Europe, and Japan have surged so far ahead of us in this vehicle of the future. It saves time, money, and pollution. Unsurprisingly, it’s very popular.

Fifty years ago, this would have been a no-brainer. In the 1950s and the 1960s, politicians were dedicated to investing in new technology and staying one step ahead of the Soviet Union. It’s no coincidence that economic growth was faster and more widespread in those days.

Back then, the federal government spent 2.6 percent of the nation’s income on nonmilitary investment. In the last twenty years, it has averaged 1.8 percent per year. That difference of 0.8 percent may not seem like a lot, but it adds up to trillions and trillions of dollars that could have gone into research and development, education, and new infrastructure — and, if previous investments are any indication, would have yielded benefits many times higher than the costs.

As economist Eugene Steuerle put it, “We have a budget for a declining nation.”

On January 28, 2010, the White House granted Florida’s request. By December, the Department of Transportation had allocated $2.4 billion against a cost of $2.65 billion, and they promised to cover any cost overruns. Had Florida accepted the money, its workers would be laying rail for the Sunshine State bullet train at this very moment.

Instead, Governor Rick Scott rejected the deal, citing cost concerns that didn’t make much sense since the feds were on the hook for any losses.

Thus did the dreams of high-speed rail die in Florida. Thus do many dreams of the future die in the modern political arena.

In Tampa, there’s a street called Bayshore Boulevard. It’s the longest continuous sidewalk in the world. It’s a beautiful walk, with a balustrade that overlooks the water below. It was built in the 1930s by the Public Works Administration, part of the federal government’s response to the Great Depression. It’s just one of many breathtaking feats of construction that dot this great land of ours, each a reminder that, as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said during the high-speed rail fiasco, “We still know how to do big things in this country.”

I’d like to think that’s true. I’d like to think we still care about the future. I’d like to think we can build a better tomorrow. I only wish Governor Scott and his fellow ideologues felt the same way.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

The Real Lesson of the Rhineland

William Kristol, one of the big kahunas of neoconservatism, has an op-ed in today’s Washington Post criticizing the Obama administration for “accepting” Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. (Of course, Kristol doesn’t use the word “alleged.”) I don’t have time to respond to all his points, but his opening paragraph gives me an opportunity to repost one of my most popular columns from my early days at the Hazleton Standard-Speaker. Here’s the prompt from Kristol:

In March 1936, Hitler occupied the Rhineland. The French prime minister, Leon Blum, denounced the act as “unacceptable.” But France, Britain and the rest of the world accepted it. Years later, the French political thinker Raymond Aron commented, “To say that something is unacceptable was to say that one accepted it.”

Comparing Iran to Nazi Germany plays fast and loose with history to a dangerous degree, as I explained in May 2008:   Continue reading “The Real Lesson of the Rhineland”

The “Leverage” Meme Rears Its Ugly Head

This morning, I open the Washington Post opinion section to see this headline: “In Afghanistan, real leverage starts with more troops.” Coming as this does only a few weeks after we celebrated the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I will reprint part of a past post. I wish I didn’t have to repeat this message, but we fall into the same damn trap time and time again:

Sadly, it seems our government learned the wrong lesson when the Berlin Wall fell. Again, when it comes to American history, we have an uncanny ability to remember only what we want to.   Continue reading “The “Leverage” Meme Rears Its Ugly Head”

Yea, We Get It Already. Afghanistan = Vietnam. Now Can We Do Something About It?

In the umpteenth attempt to drain some forgotten lesson out of Vietnam and apply it to Afghanistan, the New York Times publishes an op-ed from retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Lewis Sorley. To Sorley’s credit, his analysis is carefully reasoned and more specific than most such comparisons. But Sorley suffers from the crucial leap of logic that Boston University military historian and former Army Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich keeps harping on: mistaking tactics for strategy.   Continue reading “Yea, We Get It Already. Afghanistan = Vietnam. Now Can We Do Something About It?”