A while back, both Ezra and Ryan pointed to this post from James Surowecki, economics writer for the New Yorker. The first paragraph should be inscribed on the wall of Congress:

One of the peculiarities of the U.S. budget process is that we don’t distinguish between "expenditures" that are actually long-term investments, often with high returns for the economy as a whole, and expenditures that are consumption in the traditional sense of the word. This is very different from the way business income statements — which separate capital investments from regular spending — work. And as people like Minnesota congressman James Oberstar have pointed out, the failure to separate government investment from government consumption has perverse effects on how the government spends money, leading it to emphasize projects that cost less on an annual basis but more on a long-term basis, while also leading us to underestimate the benefits to the economy at large of investments in things like infrastructure, basic research, and so on.

I don’t have a brilliant point to make about this, just to say: that’s so right it hurts.

That "peculiarity" does not only exist in the federal budget, either — it is ubiquitous in our public conversations. That’s why when progressives talk about investing in infrastructure, energy, and education, it is treated by Very Serious pundits as "spending promises" and "goodies," like handing out candy to children.

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But a modern electrical grid, for example, is not a goodie. It’s not candy to dispense to some interest group or other. It’s an investment that pays long-term returns. It’s the same kind of investment in future capacity and growth that every business makes (or dies).

The tendency to measure costs in quarterly or yearly terms has distorted U.S. spending priorities wildly; those things that are closely assessed end up with penny-wise-pound-foolish spending, and many things, like military spending and longstanding subsidies, don’t get closely assessed at all.

A country has to invest it itself to flourish. Hopefully the next president will take that seriously.

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