Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Construction Lifts Economy

I just ran across an article entitled "Reconstruction Lifts Economy After Disasters." In this article, the author goes to great lengths to discuss how complete devastation, brought about by natural forces, can be a good thing for the economy. While this sounds heartless, he makes sure to state that the recent tornadoes should never be considered a positive occurrence. But since they happened, one of the effects has been to put a number of people back to work. 

Now, I follow his logic. Power lines, telephone towers, roads, bridges, homes, offices--they all have to be repaired. But my question is this: Why does it take a natural disaster for us to employ people who do this kind of work? The obvious answer, from someone who spent much of last week explaining this exact problem to our Congressmen and women, is funding. There is no funding for repairs to power lines, telephone towers, roads, bridges, homes and offices--unless they are destroyed beyond imagination. Taking this to an extreme, our approach, as Americans, is that if it is broken, but not completely obsolete, there is no reason to pay for any kind of upgrade or basic maintenance. But if it gets destroyed, we will pay for it from the beginning. This is like saying that you aren't willing to put freon in your air-conditioning unit, but when it burns itself up, you'll be willing to stroke the check for a new unit. (Mechanically-inclined people can forgive me, if this isn't an excellent illustration.) 

I am not advocating against rebuilding these areas. Far from it. But I am confused by why, with an over-abundance of homes in the market, we will rush to rebuild new homes, instead of considering relocation. Why we will allow our bridges to fall before our very eyes, but aren't willing to pay for improved structural soundness to ensure their stability. Or why we will allow so many individuals in our nation to live without internet, while the rest of us have it at our fingertips. Private homes are one thing (and certainly a topic for each individual to decide upon), but I am blown away that we can pay the lowest tax rates since 1950 and still be unwilling to pay for our infrastructure. 

I will not pretend that I don't have a dog in the fight. For generations, my family has been able to run a successful construction business because of government funding. Individuals don't typically pay for roads--it's just the way that it works. But our nation's infrastructure is much larger than roads and bridges. When people laugh at President Obama when he calls for high speed internet across the country, it's not a laughing matter. There are children right here in Appalachia who don't have indoor bathrooms, much less access to the internet. How will those children be able to compete in a world, where other youngsters entertain themselves with their parents' iPhones and understand the basic functions of touch screens before they are two? In the same vein, North Carolina has an initiative to pave dirt roads. How is it possible that in 2011, there are still public roads in the U.S. that are unpaved? More than that, how are there people in the U.S. who aren't willing to pay to pave roads that are currently dirt? 

The devastation suffered in Missouri, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia is something that we all have to respond to. I feel that there is a moral obligation to help those who have been affected by the worst tornado season on record. But I also feel that we should respond to the needs of our nation, outside of natural disasters. Consider how many more men and women could get back to work, if we devoted consistent funding to the infrastructure of our nation (for every $1 billion spent on highway infrastructure, 28,000 jobs are supported.) If we fail to do so, we may have a very different disaster on our hands: the disaster of uneducated children, inaccessible goods and services, and infrastructure that collapses around our ears. This has been the message of the economic recovery since the stimulus bill. But the bill caused so much consternation, and the funds were spent in so many different directions, that the impact it could have had--if funneled to infrastructure--was weakened.  

It's amazing to me, that we have been debating this for almost 30 months (that's how long it's been since ARRA passed), and it takes a natural disaster to bring the focus back to the importance of our infrastructure and it's ability to buoy our whole economy, if we are willing to invest the necessary funds to do so. The men and women in Washington should not just respond to infrastructure needs because they are required to. And they honestly shouldn't be afraid of constituents who are worked up over paying a few more dollars in taxes every year. We are not over-taxed, but we are under-funded. They should invest in infrastructure needs of all kinds because it is the right thing to do. It should not require funnel clouds a mile wide to spur action. And it's pathetic that the only action taken is action that is not optional, but spurred on by emergency needs. 

One day we will wake up and realize that all of the "optional" spending that we've been debating really wasn't "optional," either. Right now, our national air conditioning unit could use some freon. And if we wait too long, we may wind up buying the whole unit. 

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