Don’t let a crisis go to waste

As was the case with millions of Americans, I had my own idealistic vision of what an Obama presidency might look like. One aspect of my view through the looking glass was a 21st century WPA.

In FDR’s New Deal, taxpayer money was put to work through a variety of alphabet agencies. One of these was the Works Progress Administration, which invested heavily in the development of American infrastructure, including hydroelectric power. The New Deal put Americans to work, injecting sustained cash flow directly into the economy, while simultaneously building strategically important infrastructure. The thinking was that, if you’re going to take on debt to finance stimulus, you might as well have something to show for it at the end of the day – like a 4 billion kilowatt-hour clean energy generator. While we now better understand the destructive environmental impact of hydroelectric dams, it’s still important to consider the offsetting benefit of saved carbon emissions. For example, Hoover Dam saves 3.6 million metric tons of CO2 annually as compared with a coal-fired power plant.

I’m not arguing that America build more hydroelectric dams, though I do believe that stimulus would be well spent on strategic clean energy infrastructure that offers the following potential benefits:

· Job creation

· Energy independence

· Reduced carbon emissions

· Development of American clean energy technologies and industries

It has been estimated that a 100 square mile thermal solar generator could replace all the fossil fuels now burned to generate electricity in the entire U.S. That’s about half the size of Tucson, AZ. Of course, the thing only works when the sun is shining, but point is that clean energy independence seems well within the scope of possibility of the country that landed men on the moon over 40 years ago.

When the $787 billion stimulus package, officially known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was unveiled, I hoped to see many of the kinds of great public works projects produced by FDR’s WPA. Unfortunately, only $150 billion, or 19%, of the package was actually carved out for public works projects for transportation, energy and technology.

And, as LA Times’ Robert Simon reported in “Obama stimulus: More old school fix-ups, less New Deal grandeur,” much of the money allocated for public works is being spent on infrastructure repairs like fixing potholes as opposed to great new WPA-esque projects.

Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles-based free-market think tank, said: “Obama’s early statements on the stimulus, comparing its impact to that of [President] Eisenhower’s interstate highway program, created a false expectation that it would be comparable to the New Deal in building great new public works. The sad reality is that the bill Congress wrote and Obama signed is mostly make-work stuff.”

“Few of the [stimulus] projects are transformative,” said Joseph Schofer, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University.

No doubt, America’s infrastructure is badly in need of repair. In its 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s infrastructure and overall grade of D, concluding that $2.2 trillion was needed in repairs and upgrades over the next five years in order to maintain “adequate conditions.” Investing in the proper maintenance of America’s current infrastructure is necessary and will yield an economic dividend, however, America needs to go beyond merely maintaining its 20th century public works. It needs to build 21st century infrastructure.

Rahm Emanuel said: “Don’t let a crisis go to waste.” No one understood this better than FDR, who leveraged the crisis of the Great Depression for America’s long-term benefit. Over half a century later, the green hydroelectric power spawned by the New Deal still drives a surprising portion of America’s economic engine. A New New Deal would project a successful vision from America’s past toward its 21st century future, creating an America powered by clean energy, independent of foreign oil and its associated baggage, an America which incubates green technologies that will propel the next wave of innovative industry, and transitions an army of labor into a new generation of green energy manufacturing jobs.

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