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Revisiting the Stimulus

A friend of mine said to me recently,

"You haven't blogged about the stimulus. Actually, you haven't blogged about anything lately."

Fair point, that last. But as for the stimulus, my very late thoughts are as follows:

I accept the need to stimulate the economy. I dislike deficit spending, but understand that failing to take steps to boost the economy right now could have long-term, highly unpleasant impacts (such as Japan's "lost decade"). I also accept that not all stimulus can be infrastructure-related -- that it wouldn't be practical to spend that much money on construction projects that quickly, and there are many people hurting right now, and we can help them in ways that are stimulative.

That said, I feel that an opportunity was missed with this package -- not permanently, but lost for the tine being. I feel that we missed an opportunity to take dramatic steps to improve our nation's infrastructure in ways that could have positive and long-lived economic and environmental impacts.

For example, in Decembe 2007, three authors wrote an article in Scientific American proposing a massive program based on solar power to end US dependence on foreign oil and dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. From the article's summary:

A massive switch from coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power plants to solar power plants could supply 69 percent of the U.S.’s electricity and 35 percent of its total energy by 2050.

A vast area of photovoltaic cells would have to be erected in the Southwest. Excess daytime energy would be stored as compressed air in underground caverns to be tapped during nighttime hours.

Large solar concentrator power plants would be built as well.

A new direct-current power transmission backbone would deliver solar electricity across the country.

But $420 billion in subsidies from 2011 to 2050 would be required to fund the infrastructure and make it cost-competitive.

Obviously we couldn't spend $420 billion on a new plan in a year and a half. But could we have made a substantial start on it? Say, $40 billion of effort?

Or for another example, California voters approved a ballot measure to begin work on a high-speed rail system linking San Francisco to San Diego. Trains would travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2 hours, 38 minutes -- that's downtown to downtown. The estimated cost to build the system is $45 billion.

California's project is 1 of 10 Federally recognized Designated High-Speed Rail Corridors around the country. I'm guessing that, all told, they represent something like $300-500 billion in total spending, if all were built. Yet the stimulus package has only $8 billion for high-speed rail, and that was a last-minute increase (from $2 billion) pushed by the Obama administration.

I hope there's a plan for more dramatic investments in our infrastructure. I'm disappointed there isn't more of this in the stimulus package as signed into law. Here's hoping there's a plan for addressing this.

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