Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The problem with the US stimulus plan

In the NY Times online, my colleague Michael Oppenheimer argues that the US Stimulus Plan is "cementing in the wrong infrastructure". I made a similar argument about yesterday's Canadian budget. Full text of Oppenheimer's comments after the jump.

On energy and environment, the stimulus plan needs to fulfill long-term goals, as well as provide a short-term rescue. If the rescue package cements in the existing world, the necessary transition to a “green” economy will be far more difficult to achieve later.

The trade-off between building new highways and expanding or even just maintaining mass transit capacity is an obvious example. Both are “shovel-ready” but one supports the emergence of a green economy while the other just ossifies the existing patterns, which are a big part of our economic and international problems in the first place.

Similarly, only a complete overhaul of our electricity grid will make renewable energy a reality. Here we have a classic chicken-and-egg problem: without the new sources of energy, there’s less need for the modernized grid but without the new grid to distribute it, many entrepreneurs will think twice about investing in solar or wind power. It’s the government’s job to jump start the process.

A related issue is the scientific research that underpins both environmental understanding and economic progress. Our capacity to observe Earth with satellites in space is shriveling, even as the Earth is warming and ice sheets are melting. Interest among American students in physical science and engineering is practically on life-support. Yet the stimulus focuses mostly on the worthy goals of protecting jobs for teachers and renovating existing buildings. There should be equal concern for building the physical infrastructure needed to introduce new teaching approaches so that science education is not an afterthought.

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