One of my favorite on-air moments came during last Sunday’s edition of "Meet the Press" when Rachel Maddow confronted Congressman Aaron Schock (R-IL). The congressman, who was voted "cutest" member of Congress not the "smartest" member of Congress, was busy attacking the Stimulus Bill passed a year ago without a single Republican vote. Schock expressed concern that the Stimulus was wasteful, that it added to the debt without really aiding the economy, that it was "filled with pork." Maddow pounced, pointing out that the Congressman had just been present at a community college in his district praising a green technology education grant worth $350,000. The grant was a part of the Stimulus bill. Maddow correctly suggested Schock’s position was hypocritical.
Hypocrisy among politicians? Who knew?
My criticism of the Stimulus Bill is different from Schock’s. I wish it were more visible, more tangible. This has been a recent criticism voiced by Chris Matthews and I completely share it. It is all well and good to have a high speed rail project connecting Orlando and Tampa. But, if we are spending big, why not think big? Why not propose the high speed rail equivalent of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. Start high speed rail projects in many places, with a view towards connecting them within a decade. Certain frequently traveled routes seem obvious: The Northeast Corridor, Cleveland to Columbus to Cincinnati, St. Louis to Chicago, San Francisco to Los Angeles. I count some states with serious unemployment in that list alone.
Part of the success of the New Deal, and the key to ameliorating the sense of hopelessness that Franklin Delano Roosevelt inherited, was the visibility of its projects. Everywhere, roads, dams and post offices were being built. Everywhere, trees were being planted, parks were being created. That sense of hopelessness that characterized the pre-FDR years came back again, and for the same reason: The party of laissez-faire has nothing to say in the face of such economic downturns. FDR understood that the people wanted direct, vigorous action to alleviate their suffering and he understood, too, that the people needed to see their government in action on their behalf if those same people were to discover renewed confidence in their collective capacity for self-governance.
The other idea about creating jobs while holding down government spending is related to the idea of an interstate high speed rail system. President Obama and congressional Democrats have learned that attacking defense spending is a fool’s errand. But, there is no reason the President can’t shift Pentagon spending around. For example, there is a clear need to close down weapons systems the Pentagon says it does not want anymore but members of Congress that have plants that build the weapons in their district fight to keep the funding in the budget. Make them an offer: We will stop funding weapons we don’t need, but we will match that funding with money for upgrading the public transportation facilities needed to create a reasonable evacuation plan for all cities within a given district. State and local governments are hurting, and funds for public transportation improvements are not available. The national security implications of this are obvious: A biological or chemical attack in an urban area could become much worse if the subway is not able to move people away from the site of the attack.
The Stimulus is funding many needed projects. Rep. Joseph Cao (R-LA) just announced grants to extend the trolley system in New Orleans. In Maryland, a much-traveled train tunnel in downtown Baltimore is being repaired. The list goes on. But, there is no theme. Candidate Obama was a master at articulating a central theme and weaving his policy proposals into and around that theme like notes in a Bach fugue. Where did that go? It is not enough for stimulus policies to be smart. They have to be seen. People have to see, with their own eyes, that their government is doing something on their behalf. That is how you restore confidence.