$1.5 trillion is a lot of money, especially if you spend it on encouraging people to by a new car, the latest fashions, and eat out. What if we used it to improve our competitive position instead of trying to boost employment? What if we used it to solve pressing problems? What if we used it for something exciting and adventurous?
There are many historical examples of programs that did just that and cost vastly less than the current stimulus efforts.Here is a cross section:
- The Apollo Moon Program. According the the Congressional Budget Office, the total cost for this program was $190 Billion in today’s dollars ($170 Billion in 2005 dollars, link, page 38). We could pay for half a dozen programs like this and still have some change left over. The Apollo program probably had virtually no direct impact on the employment figures while it was going on, but it forced the US to develop expertise in semiconductors and computers that cemented our leadership position in this field for decades.
- The Interstate Highway System. Perhaps this didn’t spark many new technologies, but it is a good example of an infrastructure project that has been improving our competitiveness for many, many years. The total construction cost through 1995 is an estimated $329 Billion in 1996 dollars (link). In today’s dollars that is about $450 Billion. The current stimulus would be enough to pay for it three times over. Three projects as useful as the Interstate System or a few dollars of extra spending money in everyone’s pocket? You choose.
- CERN/The Manhattan Project/Other large science efforts. On the scales we are talking about here, science experiments such as the particle accelerators at CERN cost peanuts. The cost is measured in a few tens of Billions, not significant fractions of Trillions. Nevertheless, such projects often spin off very useful ideas. CERN was one of the first large international collaborations. In order to facilitate team communications, they were forced to invent HTML and they constructed the first workable version of the internet (link). This is perhaps one of the cleanest examples of how pushing science and engineering projects to the limit results in fringe benefits that have far more impact than the original project goals.
It would be easy to continue this list, but hopefully the point is clear. We are spending sums large enough to create transformational changes in how we live (complete with new jobs, new industries, and a new foundation for economic growth), but we are spending them to sell consumer goods instead.
Why not spend at least some of the money on pursuing a stretch goal? It almost doesn’t matter what it is as long as people can identify with it and it pushes the envelope. The goal could be to eliminate reliance on fossil fuels, to grow replacement organs for people needing them, to send a probe to the nearest star, to build a quantum computer, or any number of other projects.
It takes political leadership to select a goal and get everybody behind it. Kennedy did it with the Apollo program. Does anyone in Washington feel up to the challenge of doing something similar today? The next generation would surely thank them for it.