Ken Mandel, a former Rutgers classmate of mine, produced a compelling documentary film last year titled Building Alaska. There, he describes the history, trials, and tribulations of transforming the infrastructure of this frozen wasteland into one that supports a growing economy that is constantly re-inventing itself, providing thousands of jobs to both Alaskans and residents of the “lower 48.”
As blogger Dave Johnson points out, and as has been confirmed by the Bush track record, the conventional wisdom that businesses create jobs is nonsense. It is demand that creates jobs, and without demand, businesses contract and jobs disappear. This is the situation that Barack Obama inherited, and to a large extent still exists today.
The history of Alaska’s infrastructure, and by extension Alaska’s employment rolls, has been driven by a constantly-changing demand. At the turn of the twentieth century, the film points out, gold, silver, and copper were discovered in interior parts of Alaska and the Yukon, and the only way to get the precious material out to the market was via overland routes to sea ports in southern and southeastern Alaska. Visionaries such as Michael J. Heney and E.C. Hawkins provided the dreams and impetus to build railroads that were deemed impossible to construct, and later, roads over melting permafrost. Building bridges over gorges in subzero weather where half the year the daylight is short presented challenges unique to Alaska. Budgets were tight, and compromises had to be made, but the resulting railroads, automobile highways, and later the oil pipeline were all expensive, challenging investments that provided significant boosts to Alaska’s economy.
Looking back to my childhood years, we have had visionaries like Heney and Hawkins who provided me and my generation with bold infrastructure improvements to help make the American economy the strongest in the world. Today, we take it for granted that we can drive from coast to coast without encountering a traffic light, but it was not always this way. Our Interstate Highway System was championed by President Eisenhower (a Republican) and was modeled after European highways such as the Autobahn. Locally, Robert Moses was also a visionary who developed many of the bridges and roads in the New York metropolitan area.
Unfortunately, today our short-sighted politicians and businessmen don’t understand the importance of infrastructure investment as we allow our current bridges and roads to crumble under inadequate maintenance, and defer or cancel much needed projects such as the ARC tunnel, high speed rail, and air traffic control modernization. On paper, we may be balancing our budget in the short term, but we are mortgaging our future and the economy our grandchildren will inherit.
Today’s tea party politicians are calling for extension of tax cuts for the wealthy that will add $700 billion to our deficit, will not create a single American job, and will leave the nation with nothing to account for those dollars. We would be orders of magnitude better off if we were to apply those funds to infrastructure projects that would create American jobs, put people back to work, generate significant tax revenue, and provide our children with the same type of legacy that our parents left us. Twentieth century Alaska had its visionaries. Where are the twenty-first century visionaries for America?