Invest in Infrastructure and Innovation

The President’s budget was not the best proposal ever put forth by a President.  It’s better than the Republicans’ slash and burn approach, but he compromised before he had to on many important budget items like LIHEAP, CSBG, and CDBG.  One thing that the President did get right is a commitment to spending on and supporting innovation and infrastructure.  It was a big part of his “winning the future” theme in the State of the Union and has been his stump  speech for weeks.

The trouble is, it’s a bit non-specific.  President Obama, the Vice-President, and other officials are using the all of the buzzwords.  They say innovation a lot.  Investment in infrastructure gets bandied about.  Outside of a few specifics: reducing the time it takes to get a patent approved.  The current time is about three years.  There is also the pledge to connect 80 percent of the country to high-speed rail and the money that goes along with it which has been rejected by Tea Party governors.  Finally, there is the “Startup America” policy.  The President has named Steve Case, the founder of AOL, to head this program which will match up to two dollars for every one private dollar invested in small businesses.  All in the hope of creating jobs and spurring “innovation”.

This is the big split in our politics when it comes to private industry.  Conservatives will argue that if government will just get out-of-the-way, the “market” will create jobs and new products and new futures.  The argument goes one of two ways: business can’t innovate when they are crushed by burdensome regulations and taxes.  Or, Bill Gates didn’t need a government grant to create Microsoft.

Unfortunately for conservatives, the world is not populated solely by Bill Gateses and Mark Zuckerbergs.  Let’s also remember that Bills Gates wasn’t some scrappy inventor with nothing to his name.  Mr. Gates’ father was a powerful lawyer in Seattle and he attended a fairly posh private school and dropped out of Harvard.  Business, rightly so, has a hard time investing in something if the returns aren’t clear.  The President noted this earlier this month.

“Companies like yours have always driven the discovery of new products and new ideas. You do it better than anybody. But what you also know is that it’s not always profitable to — in the short-term, at least — for you to invest in basic research. It’s very expensive, and the payoffs are not always clear and they’re not always localized. And that’s why government has traditionally helped invest in this kind of science, planting the seeds that ultimately grew into technologies from the computer chips to the Internet.” – President Obama’s address to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Government has a vital role to play in this nation’s future investments into whatever.  We don’t always know what is going to come from lines of research, science, or exploration.  You could even say that this is a central role of government.  While it’s good that the President and his team are championing the need for investment in innovation, it would be better if they could articulate a bit more of the what.  Tell the story.  Give the Republicans enough rope to hang themselves.

Conservatives in Congress will fall back on their tired arguments about how the market will take care of everything.  We know that’s not true.  It took an eccentric billionaire to put enough money into commercial space flight to make it work.  Right now, Virgin ships go into low orbit.  The power of a nation put a human on the moon.  Military applications created GPS.  Government investment works.

If Republicans want to shrink government and cut out funding and support for research and development and the repair of our crumbling infrastructure, fine.  It’s up to Democrats to highlight what that means – falling behind the our neighbors in terms of producing the next generation of thinkers, schemers, and dreamers.  It means not keeping up with technology and it means not creating jobs.  Innovation and investment create jobs – now and in the future.  Are the Republicans willing to give that up?

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