Framing Infrastructure Investment

By Tom Watts

Elizabeth Warren has, during her Senate campaign, become known as a remarkable communicator.* Last year, one of her speeches went viral for being so clear, so crisp, and so effective an expression of basic progressive values that it had popular appeal immediately. Many on the left have been struggling for a way to articulate the need for investment in education and infrastructure, and Professor Warren, in about a minute, did as well as anyone has in a long time.

* Full disclosure: I was in Professor Warren’s Contracts class and have volunteered on her campaign.

Last Friday, Professor Warren was on Morning Joe and, so quickly and so subtly that it might have been easy to miss, drew on another classic way of defending investment in education and infrastructure, straight out of a very old progressive playbook. Right around 4:45 in the video, she mentions, offhandedly, that China is investing 9% of its GDP in infrastructure, compared to our 2.4%, a statistic that she cites regularly. This is the old Sputnik argument: if we don’t do it, our international competitors (or “enemies,” depending on the context — enemies are good for motivating people) will surge ahead of us and we will lose our standing in the world.

Or, as Professor Warren put it on the Daily Show, we will have no future (at 5:30 in the link).

For progressives who think that a contractionary fiscal policy (i.e. cutting spending) in a down economy like ours is a terrible idea (as Paul Krugman has been arguing for some time and France is starting to acknowledge) and need some rhetorical way to defend spending money on schools and roads and the like, I think we could do worse than to emulate Professor Warren and perhaps go even further. China has had a staggering GDP growth rate of 8% or higher in nearly every single one of the past 30 years. The U.S.’s economy has grown at less than half that rate in most years in the same timespan. China passed Japan as the second-largest economy in the world in 2010, second only to the U.S. The math is fairly simple; if China continues at a white-hot 10% growth rate, and we continue at a tepid 2%, China will pass us in 12 years. Alter those numbers somewhat, and China passes us in 20 years, or perhaps 25.

Honestly, I have very little idea what practical consequences there would be if China were to pass us as the largest economy in the world. But in a society where horse-race journalism dominates media coverage, this can be an appealing way to package the message.

To maintain our position in world affairs, we need smart investments in education, and we need well-placed investments in infrastructure. Or else we have a future, but it’s a future of stagnation, flat wages, unequal opportunities, and — most importantly for the message — the end of our leadership in the international community.

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