Bob Herbert’s savvy advocacy for better infrastructure will be missed
Photo: Damon Winter/The New York TimesCross-posted from New Deal 2.0.
Dear Mr. Herbert,
I was sad to hear that you will no longer be writing for the op-ed page of the New York Times. Your critical perspective on the class war being waged against the middle and working class and the poor, on the waste and recklessness of our wars, and on the wrenching struggles of ordinary Americans made you an invaluable voice. But I want to suggest that even more important than those insights was your consistent attempts to point to a better future, and the path to getting there, by rebuilding our infrastructure. I hope that in your forthcoming book you make that effort a substantial part of your argument.
For instance, back in 2009 you declared that “America has to be rebuilt, modernized and re-energized — from its water and sewer systems to its schools to the smart grid and the alternative energy sources that so many are talking about and beyond. That’s where the jobs are for the long term, and that’s the only route to a truly flourishing future.” You went on to say that “These investments would be costly and require vision.”
Well, you can’t single-handedly pay for the cost, but you have started to create the vision: “Imagine … an America with rebuilt, healthy, dynamic metropolitan areas, and gleaming new port facilities, and networks of high-speed rail, an America with electric vehicles and a smart grid and energy generated by the power of the sun and wind and water and the ocean’s waves. Imagine if the children of today’s toddlers had access to world-class public schools all across the nation and a higher education system that is both first-rate and affordable.”
I submit to you that the ills that you so eloquently address will not be healed without a clear vision, one based on a new, sustainable, job-creating infrastructure. Maybe the word “infrastructure” doesn’t stir the soul; Rachel Maddow tries, but she seems to have a wistful look on her face, as if to say — and she sometimes admits — “I wish I could make the infrastructure more interesting for you.” Now, to me it’s fascinating, but apparently I am in the small minority. However, I think that part of the attraction of discussing high-speed rail or networks of wind farms or walkable neighborhoods is that they literally create an image in the reader’s or viewer’s head.
But there is an even deeper need for infrastructure renewal to which you have alluded, as when you wrote that “A long-term program to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure … would create jobs and establish a sound industrial platform for 21st-century industries. The transformation to a greener economy needs to be accelerated, and most of the manufacturing associated with that newer, greener economy should take place in the United States.” As I argue in my book, Manufacturing Green Prosperity, the way to build a strong economy in the long-term is to rebuild the manufacturing sector, and the way to rebuild the manufacturing sector is to build an environmentally sustainable infrastructure. The two can be joined, hand in hand, if we create the right set of policies.
And as you point out, “Think of the returns the nation reaped from its investments in the interstate highway system, the Land Grant colleges, rural electrification, the Erie and Panama canals, the transcontinental railroad, the technology that led to the Internet, the Apollo program, the G.I. bill.” The government can and must be a force for good in society — that is, if the population has a choice of candidates who will do the right thing. You wrote of how China is moving full speed ahead, how John Kennedy used the presidency to create a vision of the future, of how first steps like an infrastructure bank can help lead to a needed turnaround.
Finally, I urge you to consider putting forth these principles as a first step in constructing a new kind of economics, as intimidating as that may sound. The ideas you are talking about are actually complementary to much of neoclassical economics, even if many economists might not see it that way. What conventional economists are not good at is what you, and others like you, are good at — understanding the need for good jobs for everyone, the role of a modern and well-maintained infrastructure, for a manufacturing base that can provide millions of jobs, and for a government that has a constructive role to play. These should be touchstones for, as you sum up in your last column, “expand[ing] my efforts on behalf of working people, the poor and others who are struggling in our society.” I wish you luck!