Infrastructure is investing.
President Biden has proposed some big programs — for example a $2 trillion “infrastructure” bill. The Republicans have brought out their usual accusation of “big spender.”
But it’s important to bear in mind: There is a huge difference between “spending” and “investing.”
• “Spending” is money gone in order to get benefits now.
• “Investing” is giving up resources now in order to make possible much greater benefits in the future.
The original Republicans — including Abraham Lincoln — believed in the building of bridges and canals and the Transcontinental Railroad. And later, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower led the nation in building of the Interstate Highway System.
Such Republicans understood that a nation that has built the avenues for prosperity will out-compete a nation that fails to make the public investments in prosperity’s foundations — like an educated public, like a healthy population, like broadband, as well as roads and bridges.
Building “infrastructure” is investing.
In recent decades, America has lost ground, compared to the rest of the world. We’ve fallen behind not because of our “big spending” but because of our failure to invest in our “infrastructure.”
America’s own engineers — observing the neglected condition of American infrastructure — have consistently graded our roads and bridges to be most unsatisfactory. The United States no longer leads in education for our young. Our airports do not measure up to global standards among advanced societies.
After such neglect, the needs have grown so big that it only makes sense to go as big as we can to meet them. The plan put forward by Biden’s team almost certainly would serve America well.
The burden of student debt on our young
Investment means taking the needs of the future seriously. And that means extending to the generations to come some genuine care about their well-being.
In America, one of the most significant kinds of investments we make in the rising generation is through their education. As a means to enable our young to fulfill their best potential, our investment in education simultaneously advances the future good of society and individuals’ fulfillment in their lives.
Our economy places a higher value on those positions that require more education. That means that — for those whose gifts require education to be fully realized — education creates greater future value as our society assesses it.
(There are too many jobs that require a college degree but that could be done just as well by a capable person with a high school education. But that’s an issue for another column.)
Yet — over the past decades — our society has become less willing to make that vital investment in education.
The University of Virginia is typical in that respect: the share of education paid for by public funds has declined considerably, while the proportion that must be borne by the students and their families has greatly increased.
This failure to invest in our young means that many students, whose lives would be improved by education beyond high school, are priced out of the market. Because they are unable to bear the immediate financial burden our society would place on them for their education, these young people are forced onto a life-path on which they will achieve less and be paid less.
Meanwhile, because of our society’s unwillingness to invest adequately in the higher education of our youth, many of those who do get the education they need will emerge — from college and/or from professional schools— burdened by debt.
It didn’t used to be that way.
Students of my generation — graduating college in the 1960s — generally came out debt-free. But today’s students – following the very same path — will emerge with their degrees with a debt big enough to be described as “the mortgage without the house.”
The effects of that debt are damaging: the debt burden on these students will cramp their lives for years; perhaps worse, it will drive career decisions that are likely suboptimal both for the individuals and for the society at large.
What kind of society — despite growing ever richer — becomes less willing to take care of the needs of the next generation?
What does it say about us as a society that — even as the nation as a whole has become wealthier — we have chosen to burden our children in a way that we were not burdened?
Why do we not invest in our children as devotedly as we used to?
Why don’t we care enough about our young to enable them to be all that they could be?
No society with a proper bond with the coming generations would behave this way.
We generally talk about investment in financial terms. But there’s another dimension of “investment” that is still more fundamental. It appears that for us as a society to invest in our young as we should — in material terms — we need first to invest more love and care into the relationship with those to come after us.
There’s a famous proverb: “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.”