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Considering how incessantly all politicians blather about jobs and how badly we need them, it is remarkable how little most of them actually do to increase employment. Much of what they’ve done in Washington over the past few years has achieved precisely the opposite, in fact – which leaves voters understandably cynical about government’s capacity to address an ongoing economic calamity.

But what would happen if at least one party’s leadership decided that jobs truly must be created, as soon as possible – and that the perennial crisis of decaying infrastructure must be addressed at the same time?  This year, Democrats ought to seize the chance to find out.

Anyone who has been paying attention ought to know the dire facts about U.S. infrastructure: Far too many of our roads, bridges, transit, schools, pipelines, airports, and seaports are outdated – or even in danger of falling apart. Our estimated shortfall in infrastructure financing is roughly two trillion dollars or so over the coming decade. Once the nation with the best transportation structures in the world, the United States has dropped below a dozen or more competitors.

Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor who now chairs Building America’s Future, a bipartisan group promoting policy action on infrastructure, recently explained how a specific investment failure creates a continuing and deep disadvantage:

As you know, the Panama Canal is being deepened and these supertankers are coming through,” he said. “When they unload, they create longshoreman jobs and trucker jobs that are, again, well-paying jobs.

But only two of America’s 12 Eastern Shore…ports are ready to receive them because we haven’t done proper dredging. So those ships are going to go to Canada. And the jobs are going to be produced in Canada, not the U.S.

Most Americans haven’t been paying much attention to these issues, of course, so many probably have little conception of the problem’s scale or gravity. But in polls and referenda, they nevertheless tend to support specific revitalization projects. The only part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that remained popular — even after Republican propaganda wrongly discredited “stimulus” spending — was the $150 billion public works program.

While the Republican leadership in Congress remains unalterably opposed to increased spending on anything – even roads and bridges at risk of ruin – there are Republicans (or former Republicans) like former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, who understand that this shortsighted austerity courts disaster. In a sense, the politicians who insist on using up the infrastructure, without rebuilding and improving what previous generations left to us, are the human equivalent of termites.

If we need trillions, where will we ever find the money? There are in fact many ways to raise the needed funds, through taxes and fees, but the truth is that for the moment we can still borrow for these vital purposes at very low interest rates. Those negligible costs, applied to rebuilding facilities that will last several lifetimes, represent an amazing bargain this country may not see again.

Yet an even greater bargain would be putting millions of the unemployed back to work – saving their families, preserving their communities, and paying taxes that will ultimately reduce the deficit (which is declining rapidly anyway).

We can still save the country that was the legacy of the greatest generation  – not only its transportation and communications and energy networks, but its discarded and disrespected people, too. There is no issue that deserves greater attention in this election.

Photo:  Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr

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