Most political enthusiasts, especially the Democratic ones, prefer to see their presidents carry out some sort of major legislative accomplishment that was previously deemed impossible. This is what made President Barack Obama’s success with the Affordable Health Care Act so spellbinding and surprising.
But this focus on major legislative accomplishment in Obama’s first term ignores the importance of the old-fashioned infrastructure spending. This is why the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, more commonly known as the stimulus package, has proven to be the true hallmark of Obama’s presidency so far.
It’s become common for both political parties to demonize infrastructure spending as pork barrel waste, and some of it is just that. But politicians and those who criticize them often forget the difference between pork and capital investment.
The stimulus package remains one of Obama’s least popular initiatives because Republicans have succeeded at branding it as pork — but even if it wasn’t a FDR-esque success for Keynesian economics, it was the most forward-thinking action of a man whose campaign slogan is “Forward.”
This Republican rebranding rhetoric is not just misguided; it’s dangerous. No young Republicans I’ve encountered are willing to agree with their party’s position on gay marriage, but they loathe almost any form of public investment a Democrat proposes.
The United States might be the only country in the world having this debate. Infrastructure development is essential in order to compete with emerging economies whose focus on public and private investment is making them more attractive for commerce. Case in point: my favorite foreign country, Brazil.
For almost its entire history, Brazil — like many other Latin American nations — was a haven for the rich and a hell for the poor. No middle class existed, and public services like trash collection, paved roads and public transportation only served the most well-off neighborhoods in the region’s richest cities.
But in São Paulo, the financial capital of Latin America and one of the world’s largest cities, a focus on large-scale public projects has started to close that gap. Despite delays, a large-scale plan to connect more of the sprawling city with expanded, uber-modern Metro lines is helping growth and crime — the city boasts the lowest crime rate of all Brazilians state capitals. Rich executives still take to the skies in helicopters to avoid the abysmal automobile traffic, but officials hope the proposed infrastructure changes will alleviate that.
For decades, Americans have looked south to Brazil as some sort of bizarre corruption of our own country because of its extraordinary social inequality and decrepit infrastructure. But Brazil is catching up to us — just like China, India and many Arab nations. Investment and development have opened up new, larger markets for big companies — McDonald’s and Carrefour are now popular enough there that obesity is becoming a problem, thanks to middle-class consumption habits.
Brazil still must cross large hurdles related to human development and equality. However, my time there was eye-opening because it made me realize the power of the responsible capitalism I just described. Many of Obama’s critics love to call him a European socialist, but he’s the kind of responsible capitalist who understands ignoring the advancements other nations are making with new airports, schools, train lines and roads will make America hostile to business and foreign investment.
Both parties have correctly identified deficit reduction as a crucial issue in this campaign, and we will never be able to pay off our debt without taking measures to make this country more attractive to global economic actors. Just look at what’s happening in Wisconsin for proof of what can go wrong — austerity doesn’t help, but correctly and efficiently planned investment does.
Ryan Rainey ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in journalism and Latin American studies.