The Basics: Education and Infrastructure

When I started working in economic development more than thirty years ago –time does fly when you are having fun – conventional wisdom was that the state’s chief role was education and infrastructure. They were considered the foundation on which the private sector could build a strong economy. Somehow that lesson has been lost over the years as we designed and implemented all sorts of new ways to subsidize business investment or bought into the low tax/small government ideology.

So it was with great pleasure that I read a recent Paul Krugman column that made the case that education and infrastructure are still the foundation on which you build a strong economy. Unfortunately as Krugman points out we are headed in the wrong direction. Increasingly as a nation we are disinvesting in both. Big mistake!

As Krugman writes: … a country that once amazed the world with its visionary investments in transportation, from the Erie Canal to the Interstate Highway System, is now in the process of unpaving itself: in a number of states, local governments are breaking up roads they can no longer afford to maintain, and returning them to gravel. And a nation that once prized education — that was among the first to provide basic schooling to all its children — is now cutting back. Teachers are being laid off; programs are being canceled; in Hawaii, the school year itself is being drastically shortened. And all signs point to even more cuts ahead. … And what about the economy’s future? Everything we know about economic growth says that a well-educated population and high-quality infrastructure are crucial. Emerging nations are making huge efforts to upgrade their roads, their ports and their schools. Yet in America we’re going backward.

Certainly that is true here in Michigan. For the first time ever we can’t pass a much needed gas tax to fix our roads and develop a 21st Century transit system despite nearly unanimous support from the business community. We are apparently willing to give up millions in federal aid rather than raise the gas tax. And, of course, for a decade we have been disinvesting in our higher education system. In the 20th Century, when it didn’t matter so much, we built one of the best systems of community colleges and universities on the planet, now that it is essential for economic growth we are cutting higher ed spending with bipartisan support.  Real stupid!

If we want to recreate a prosperous Michigan we need to get back to the basics. That means reestablishing public investments in education and infrastructure as a priority. Without a quality lifelong system of teaching and learning as well as a quality of place that increasingly mobile talent demands when they decide where to live and work we are going to continue to get poorer compared to the nation. Public investments in the basics are that important.

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