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The Decline Of The American Jobs Plan; $2 Trillion Needed, Now

“Troubles Overcome are Good To Tell”  

Yiddish Proverb

Last week’s jobs report – the Big Miss – is being hurled at the Biden infrastructure plan from all sides. Accepted wisdom is loudly arguing on the one side that a) infrastructure doesn’t create jobs quickly enough to matter, and arguing from the other side that b) the labor pool is already tight, so where are we going to get the workers required for a $2 trillion build? These statements are wrong and contradictory, and they highlight a big problem – the life of the not yet born infrastructure initiative is profoundly fragile, in mortal danger of being cut down to $1 trillion or less (something the smart money in Washington already handicaps as certain).

This country’s future requires that we make a big investment now. Getting this right demands a plan that is a lot of things, especially big, bold and focused. That is only going to happen if we raise the infrastructure discussion above politics – politics stops not at the water’s edge, in the famous phrase of our 1947 bipartisan foreign policy moment, but at the point at which the continued failure to invest imperils our future. After forty years of disinvestment in our future, that moment is now. 

This moment is reminiscent of another historical moment of technology transition, Gen. Billy Mitchell’s blow-up in 1925 over Washington’s failure to take seriously the series of investments in air power, from new planes to aircraft carriers, charging “… incompetency, criminal negligence, and almost treasonable administration of the national defense.”

We Must Invest. The question is not how much to invest, which is always going to be more, but what do we invest in: which projects, which programs, are going to create the kind of strategic momentum that will allow us to create the country in which we want to live – and how do we start building those projects in this critical year? Momentum matters: a country with momentum seeks innovation, takes challenges, welcomes risk. China has tremendous momentum (growing its economy 75 times in the last forty years), as do key allies in Asia like the Republic of Korea (25 times). We don’t, and nor of course do our European allies and Japan.  

The Missing Ingredient. This missing ingredient is vision, coupled with the urgency of generating the velocity of action necessary to achieve that vision. What’s little talked about in terms of vision – and velocity – is the third element, the sustained resolution (persistent grit) required to move forward.  The fragility of the Biden infrastructure plan is this: while you and I might have a single, powerful, vision, it doesn’t come through in terms of an aspiration that we can achieve.

The beauty of our democratic future – its energy, noise and creative conflict – is lost in self-segregation around three incredibly absorbing goals:

The Environmental Goal. Renewable energy, electric car charging, high voltage transmission, these are all leading edge areas of focus, critical to saving the planet, and highlighted by projects like TransWest Express, Anbaric’s offshore transmission superhighway, or Tesla’s 25,000 supercharging stations.  

The Productivity Goal. 5G/AI/SmartCities, these are the projects that will directly drive economic growth, critical to leading in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This is led by the Autonomy Institute’s plan to put 5G posts along the entire interstate highway system, transforming the 50,000 miles of old infrastructure into a dramatic vision of coast to coast advanced manufacturing for the entire country.  

The Equity Goal. Clean water, a dramatically better environment, green mobility for everyone, the equity vision focuses on people and opportunity, and making critical investments in broadband, urban water without lead, and massive innovations in our deeply troubled transit system. Projects include the expansion, upgrade and safety of mobility in every city in the U.S. 

 

These are distinct goals, with strong and exclusionary narratives, but tightly interrelated. First, each demands enormous innovation – both in terms of technology, and in terms of finance (stop ignoring our $30 trillion in debt, it is the elephant in every discussion, and we are a pension fund superpower). Second, each is driven by the extraordinary inventiveness of our technology ecosystem – companies from Tesla
TSLA
to AES, from Cisco to Oracle, and from Xylem to Trimble. Third, they all require a new strategy from the public sector, one that makes quick and predictable regulatory decisions, around projects, and innovative technology and finance.  

Telling Great Stories. We need a story to make sense of how these three goals fit together. It starts by thinking in infrastructure time (30-40 years) rather than social media time (3-4 minutes). Is Texas Central high speed rail just an environmental project? Is the Hudson River Tunnel just a productivity project? Is the Dallas Silver Line project simply an equity project? These might start as primarily environmental, or equity or productivity projects, but once they are up and running each one does all three – starting by creating great jobs, on the project, supplying goods and services to the project, and job creation for the next 30 years supplying the project. 

Think of this fact: while we struggle with 5G, both China and Korea are creating 6G technology – indeed the Korean 5G Forum will change its name this year to the 6G Forum. A project commissioned this year will go through three more generations of transformative technology during its short lifespan.

Creating Great Stories – A Suggestion. To create the story – so that it is real for the rest of us – we need to select and build good projects, and we need to do that in 2021. If as a new friend says ‘vision is listening to the future whispering,’ then the sooner we get started, the more loudly that future will speak to us.

Why don’t we select three projects from each state, taking shovel worthy projects, and making them shovel ready? We have the need (if we can define it), we have the projects (if we can shake them loose), we have the money (particularly if we can bring pension funds to bear) and we have the technology (digitization and electrification innovations are barreling our way), so can we decide – do we have the grit?

Here is a recent quote from Daniel Kahneman on the point above: “People prefer their sources of information to be highly correlated. Then all the messages you get are consistent with each other and you’re comfortable.” Infrastructure is not correlated, it is aspirational – and so now its time for leadership to step in, put down a robust investment marker, and get us started!

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