Public investment and the social contract

On Wednesday I participated in a panel discussion called Public Investment: Key to Prosperity, sponsored by Americans for Democratic Action. Leaving aside the broader case for public investments, I’d like to point out that this topic is important not just because we continue to underinvest in infrastructure, education, and innovation, but because public investments are a powerful messaging tool for progressives. The right is exceedingly effective at demonizing all government spending as wasteful and, in the era of deficit hysteria, greedy as well because it forces us to pass debt on to future generations.

But public investments, which make up about half of all domestic (non-security) discretionary spending, are exactly the opposite of this characterization—they are investments made now, but their benefits accrue to society over decades and sometimes centuries (the Erie Canal has been in operation for nearly 200 years!). The left does well talking about the importance of individual programs, but unless we can start linking it all (or at least many) together under a single conceptual umbrella, we’ll keep losing the budget battles that happen at the macro level.

This message gets to the broader social contract. Elizabeth Warren’s hyper-viral video is really about the role that public investments play in an individual’s success, and the debt that successful taxpayers owe back to society in the form of higher tax rates. For a deeper look at this, check out The Self-Made Myth, which shows how many successful business leaders—from Warren Buffet and Ben Cohen to Donald Trump and Ross Perot—owe their success to government’s investment in them.