Government investment made the US great – and can do it again.
By Hank Boerner
In our fractious and contentious public policy debates – where the nation is almost equally divided pro and con on many issues – how can we agree on solutions or at least the basic questions to unite and move forward to preserve our quality of life and build on the great legacies of generations past? These are not idle questions – with the end of the Cold War we have lost the common enemy (the USSR and satellite states), and to an alarming extent, our common purpose.
The terms thrown around, especially by pundits – right/left, conservative/liberal, red/blue state, loony left/wacky right – themselves aggravate the differences of opinion in these United States (which on many issues are dis-united). And if we can agree on a forward approach, the immediate comment is: where do we get the money for that, or, we can’t afford that. How did we get to this awful state of affairs? (One answer is that Cold War spending exhausted not only the Soviet Union but the US treasury as well.)
Do we or do we not have the money to address societal issues that can (if not addressed) render the US a second rate economic and political power (especially as other nations rise)? Looking at the public treasuries, I’m reminded of a book from Brookings Institute in 2002 by Paul C. Light (Government’s Greatest Achievements). The author observed: “Congress asked the Federal Government to solve a truly remarkable assortment of problems between WWII and the end of the 20th Century. [The 50 endeavors outlined in the book] reflect its most intensive efforts to improve life both at home and abroad, some of these were underway before 1945 and almost all continue today. To the extent a society is measured at least in part by what it asks its government to do, Americans can be very proud indeed.”
So as we look at today’s vexing social issues, we can ask what we want our government and private and social sectors to do about: healthcare and wellness; job creation; elder care; access to education; food safety and proper nutrition; economic development; public transportation; helping low-income families up the economic ladder; fairness in global trade; home ownership; access to credit…and more. What is our social responsibility here? For sure, government cannot solve the problems in each by itself – social institutions, the capital markets and private sector organizations must be part of the solution.
So what are some of the 50 greatest achievements we can point to with pride? Progress in addressing human rights and civil rights. Containing communism, spreading democracy. Renewing impoverished communities. Consumer protection. Workplace safety. Assuring safe food and water. Eliminating diseases (polio, smallpox). Reducing hunger to astonishingly low levels for a mostly urban society. Stabilizing crop prices – assuring the lowest cost food in developed nations. Reducing exposure to hazardous waste. Encouraging recycling.
Would these have been possible without government as a major part of the solution? Let’s look further – at really big ideas that helped create major opportunities in the capital markets, for millions of families, entire communities, and ideas that moved the US to the highest pinnacles of success in different fields. Think about: the space effort (and the many consumer and industrial products resulting from NASA investment). Continental railroads (on May 10, 1869 the East and West met at Promontory Summit, Utah, thanks to government being the catalyst for private investment). The nation’s airways and airports system – trillions invested by government at all levels. The Eisenhower Highway System, linking every state in the continental USA.
And beyond our shores the US was rebuilding a world torn apart by war. In 1948 the Marshall Plan (guaranteeing the debt of democratic European nations) led the way for the Common Market and then the European Union to flourish. We sought no territory in WWII. As President Harry S. Truman observed in 1947: “The seeds of communism are nurtured by misery and want. They spread and grow in the evil soil of poverty and strike. They reach their full growth when the hope of a people for a better life has died.” (Might we apply those words today in the streets of Arab capital in the Middle East region?)
Of the brilliant Marshall Plan, Sir Winston Churchill observed it was “the most unsordid act in history,” and a great moral victory for America. (Wall Street take note: the US guarantee was $12 billion in 1948 – $1.00 then is $9.27 today in constant dollars. Talk about great seed money and ROI!) The lesson was learned in the Great Depression in the US in the 1930s. Government seed money paid great dividends over time – almost incalculable.
Think of the municipal buildings and infrastructure built with New Deal monies. Airports, bridges, dams, levees, soil stabilization, water supply. And the Big Ideas preceded the 1930s – early canals linked the new United States of America. Then roads, railroads and finally airways. The telegraph lines linked every community and eventually continents. The US created the Internet (coming out of the military DARPANET) – the descendant of the telegraph, dominated by the US.
So with the fractious debate, why do we seem to ignore all of this? Yes, the US Treasury is strained. So, it seems, are our ideas for moving forward. This is the richest nation ever known to humanity; our assets are dependent on government, “of” government, from government, and by government, in partnership with social and private sector institutions. Think of the Universal Ownership concept of capital that could be put to work creating Great Achievements in the 21st Century. It’s up to us to get together – to unite again – in common purpose. Otherwise, the legacies of past generations will be squandered. That would be an act of great irresponsibility on our part. What are your thoughts on this?
About Hank Boerner
Hank Boerner is Chairman of the Governance & Accountability Institute in New York City and co-author with Mark W. Sickles of the book, Strategic Governance: Enabling Financial, Environmental and Social Sustainability (published 2011 by the Institute). In the volume the authors explore links between culture, risk management, strategies and corporate responsibility.
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