Some suggestions on how to spend $800 billion
6. Build schools. Speaking of research, let’s spend billions on building and repairing academic facilities. I may be prejudiced, but years of teaching have convinced me that good schools are the most important key to both prosperity and equity. Our underfunded and unequal school systems are both an embarrassment and an obstacle to real progress. While I will not offer my opinions on testing, vouchers, school choice, or any of the other educational policy controversies of the moment, I am certain of one thing: Beautiful, spacious, and well-equipped school and university buildings can make an enormous difference in the self-esteem of students and the effectiveness of teachers and researchers.
7. Build public housing. The bursting of the housing bubble has not simply helped plunge the economy into recession, it has been an object lesson in the distortions of the market. The profligacies of credit extended to those who could not afford it — often on incredibly deceptive terms — and the widely bruited fantasy that prices would simply rise forever, have helped to demonstrate once again that anyone who believes uncritically in either the wisdom or justice of the market is foolish. Despite the fall in prices, the nation still faces a crisis of both housing affordability and quality. As the national income gap continues its obscene growth, both the poor and the middle class are being squeezed out. It’s time to get over the old politics of indirection and get back to the direct provision of vital services. We massively subsidize home ownership via mortgage-interest deductions but can no longer bring ourselves to support the idea of public housing as something government can build directly. Yet a third of Americans live in substandard or unaffordable housing, and the market has shown neither the inclination nor the ability to solve this problem. Government can. But subsidy strategies — whether offered to homeowners or developers — are not enough. It’s time to step in both to repair and renew existing public stocks and to construct millions of new units. To be sure, we’ve learned the lesson of public housing built meanly, housing that simply concentrates the poor in new ghettos. So let’s get on with something better, housing that will allow our cities to be fairly shared by all their citizens.
8. Build new cities. When the cold war came to its close, there was much talk of what might be done with the “peace dividend,” the funds freed up by the disappearance of the Soviet threat. It’s time to pay that dividend. While I’m as Keynesian as the next born-again New Dealer, it’s clear that the trillions in giveaways and bailouts to the fat cats in the financial sector under Bush and the huge sums you propose to spend on stimulus will have a disastrous effect on our out-of-control national indebtedness; the Chinese are unlikely to buy our paper forever. Huge savings are also needed, and the one truly soft spot in the budget is defense, which currently consumes a trillion dollars a year. (According to an article in the Washington Post by Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz, the war in Iraq alone will eventually cost $3 trillion in direct and indirect expenses.)
You have pledged to withdraw our forces, but why stop there? How about cutting defense spending in half and using the money for something constructive? Of course, it doesn’t make sense to simply fire our military personnel, discard their resources, or sever the intricate cultural connections of the military-industrial complex. Let us, instead, give the military and its contractors a new task commensurate in grandeur and importance with warfare: building cities. As towns from Fort Wayne to Fort Worth show, the military has long played a crucial role in setting our urban pattern and providing necessary infrastructure. At a time when the automobile-induced pattern of edge cities and sprawl has spun completely out of control, what better antidote is there than the systematic construction of hundreds of new towns on a radically sustainable pattern? And what better use is there for a military that has been growing for two centuries than to put it to work converting its thousands of bases into new cities and towns?
9. Reconstruct New Orleans. I was surprised at how little New Orleans was discussed during the campaign. Although the levees have been repaired to a point and prime tourist areas restored, the city remains massively depopulated and little has been done to rebuild most of the neighborhoods destroyed. Why not step up to the plate? We take it for granted that federal money — via the Army Corps of Engineers! — will be spent on flood-mitigation measures. But why not spend on the rest of what needs to be done? I find it beyond ironical that we have poured tens of billions of dollars (huge portions of which have been squandered due to inefficiency, corruption, and greed) in “rebuilding” the Iraq we destroyed, but have yet to make an even remotely similar commitment to our own devastated city. Instead, we do not simply countenance racist inertia but even sanction the destruction of the city’s public housing stock. Make this city great again. Send in the Urban Forces!
10. Clean up the place. There are around 1,300 “Superfund” sites in the U.S., and the rate of cleanup has slowed to a snail’s pace. Part of the reason is political: There are no funds in the Superfund. Another is the difficulty in compelling polluters to do the remediation themselves. The economic crisis will only increase the number of companies in bankruptcy or otherwise able to plead poverty. And the Superfund sites are only the tip of the toxic iceberg. Our cities continue to be plagued by air and water pollution, by dangerous materials, and by overwhelming amounts of solid waste. Taken together, this is a public health emergency. As you move to reform our medical delivery system, it would make a lot of sense to look to the causes of our ill-health; to make the country beautiful; and to restore our land, air, water, and woods to something a lot closer to pristine. We’ll all breathe easier.