In (2012 Swing State) Raleigh, North Carolina today, President Obama reiterated his pitch for the increased construction spending in his new stimulus proposal:

I don’t know about you — I don’t know about you, but I don’t want any of our young people studying in broken-down schools; I want our kids to study in the best schools.  (Applause.)  I don’t want the newest airports or the fastest railroads being built in China; I want them being built right here in the United States of America.  (Applause.)  There are construction projects like these all across the country just waiting to get started.  There are millions of unemployed construction workers looking for work.  My question is, what’s Congress waiting for?  There’s work to be done; there are workers ready to do it; let’s pass this jobs bill right away and let’s get it done.  (Applause.)  Let’s go.

A few questions come to mind.

  • If you’re going to spend federal taxpayer dollars on education, is fixing school facilities the highest priority?  More important than merit pay for teachers?  Is this prioritization the same everywhere, or do different school districts have different needs?
  • School has begun.  If your goal is construction jobs now, won’t most major school construction work wait until next summer?
  • The President supports some educational reforms that upset teachers’ unions, and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan is making “Race to the Top” funds to States contingent on these reforms.  Why not do the same here?
  • What does China’s infrastructure investment have to do with ours?  Our economies are quite different: China is in the Industrial Age, we’re moving into the Information Age. Should we build a bullet train in California because the Chinese are building bullet trains (that derail)? Should we build spiffy new airports because the Chinese are doing so?  Or should we instead determine U.S. public infrastructure spending priorities based on the needs of the national and regional economies here in the U.S.?  And should we prioritize infrastructure spending relative to other domestic economic policy priorities based on U.S. needs, or based on Chinese priorities?
  • How does the President reconcile today’s “waiting to get started” comment with his admission last October to the New York Times that “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects?”
  • If there are shovel-ready projects “waiting to get started,” why didn’t the Administration already get them started with as-yet unspent funds from the February 2009 stimulus law?  The President asks “What’s Congress waiting for?” What’s the President waiting for?

For me the China argument is the weakest.  We first heard this case from the President in his January State of the Union address.  Derived from a line of argument popularized by Tom Friedman, the claim is that because China’s economy is growing faster than America’s, the U.S. should mimic Chinese economic policies and specifically Chinese government investment spending.

But China is growing from a much lower base than the U.S.  China’s economy, economic policy, and infrastructure needs are quite different from ours in the U.S.  It’s easy to see why a country that still relies heavily on bicycles for transportation would prioritize infrastructure spending, while a more advanced economy might have other economic policy priorities (like paying down government debt).  Even if you think infrastructure spending should be a top American policy priority, then both the type and location of that spending should be determined by American needs, not by elected officials who “want” to compete for who has the shiniest toys.  More broadly, it’s simply nuts to think the U.S. should take economic direction from Chinese policies. Kudos to the Chinese for moving toward a market economy, but that doesn’t mean the U.S. should move toward more centralization.

The political reasons for the President to push for additional government construction stimulus spending now are obvious. If he wants his policies to be taken seriously, he needs to make a stronger case for them.

(photo credit: White House photo by Chuck Kennedy)