After the midterm elections last week, a common refrain has been how difficult it will be to pass any legislation in Washington.
The gridlock that is expected from a Congress dominated by staunch opposition to many of the president’s core positions threatens to make decisive action impossible, essentially ruling out the federal government’s ability to deal with any number of pressing issues for at least two years.
Two issues in which there might be an opportunity for significant progress, however, are long-term investments in the United States’ future that have been neglected for too long: restoring our systems of education and infrastructure to world-class levels.
Although Democrats and Republicans have their fundamental disagreements about the role of government, the moderates of each side concur that it is the government’s responsibility to ensure the provision of key public goods — those that do not provide enough benefit to any single private entity to justify that an individual or group take on their cost, but whose benefit to society is so high that they are worth spending our collective resources (the national budget) to maintain.
Education and infrastructure fall squarely in this category, as a deficit in either threatens the future of our economy as well as our national security. A poorly educated population cannot compete in an increasingly globalized and information-centered economy — neither can a population that spends all day stuck in traffic.
Unfortunately, right now the United States is moving in the wrong direction in both areas.
In education, Americans today are less likely to graduate from high school than their parents and less likely to have strong math and science skills than their peers in competitor markets such as France.
On the most recent Program for International Student Assessment test, given by the U.S. Department of Education, American 15-year-olds finished only 16th out of 30 nations in science, and 23rd in math.
These tragic results come despite the fact that we currently spend more per pupil — more than $10,000 in constant 2006-2007 dollars — than at any time in our history. This is almost double what we spent 30 years ago.
This means that what we need is not more spending, but a major reform of the education system.
However, this issue has received precious little attention in Washington since the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
The national infrastructure is in a similarly woeful predicament, albeit one whose solution lies likely in increased spending rather than institutional reform.
The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure awarded our bridges a C, dams and transit systems Ds, and roads, levees and drinking water systems D-minuses.
Though this group might be slightly overdramatic — our infrastructure remains far superior to what most of the world’s population deals with on a daily basis — it is true that our infrastructure is aging and that we are being surpassed by key competitors such as China that spend aggressively to modernize their systems.
The United States has not undertaken a major national infrastructure construction program since the Eisenhower administration. This has resulted in disasters ranging from broken levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina to a 2007 bridge collapse in Minnesota that killed 13 people.
Decaying infrastructure also incurs more routine costs. The average household spends more on transportation than on food, traffic costs an estimated $80 billion a year and flight delays cost approximately $10 billion each year.
Just as with our schools, government is not doing enough to address this problem. We invest less than one-third of what Western Europe does on infrastructure as a percentage of GDP, and our lack of new infrastructure initiatives contrasts sharply with projects in countries we consider up-and-coming rivals, such as new highways in China or a high-speed rail in Brazil.
Redirecting some of our spending to infrastructure, which is both an essential investment for the future and a job-creation machine in the present, will be necessary if we wish to remain competitive economically.
These types of initiatives would be encouraging to see during the lame-duck session.
Not only are they feasible in the current political situation and important investments in the future, but also because their success would contribute to a constructive, bipartisan environment in Washington that has been conspicuously absent for quite some time.
Daniel Charnoff is a senior majoring in international relations (global business). His column, “Through the Static,” runs Wednesdays.