Our Interrelated Crises


David Brooks seems to think that Barack Obama is trying to do too much at once. Steve Benen retorts that “The notion that multiple problems — healthcare, energy, education, infrastructure, economic growth — may be inter-connected seems to elude Brooks entirely.”

Obviously, people who want to do a lot of stuff like to make those kind of interconnection arguments. So it’s worth trying to think clearly and explicitly about the relationships. The starting point, I would say, is growth. There are a lot of factors behind growth including, of course, old fashioned human ingenuity at coming up with new products to offer and new ways to offer old products. But perhaps the most important things policy can do to impact the capacity for sustainable growth—i.e., growth that’s not based on asset price bubbles—is to increase the availability of high-quality human capital and the availability and quality of public sector physical capital. Which is to say education and infrastructure. Energy is related to this in two ways. First, the power grid on which our electricity flows is part of the infrastructure. And second, a lot of energy is used in transportation, and the quantity of energy used in this way is impacted by the nature of the available transportation infrastructure. The goal of curbing carbon emissions probably isn’t vital to our growth prospects except in the sense that over the long run an increasingly deadly and inhospitable environment will be disastrous for all human endeavors. But though avoiding ecological catastrophe is something of a freestanding goal, our growth prospects require new investments in infrastructure, so it makes sense to try to make sure this new infrastructure is suited to our environmental goals. Last, health care. These kind of investments we’re talking about will cost money. Some of that money can and should come from taxes. And some of that money can and should come from short-term borrowing. But to make the investments sustainable we need to put the budget on a sustainable basis. And that requires tackling the health care system in a systematic way.

And so—ta da—it’s all connected. I think there’s plenty of room for disagreement as to exactly what needs to be done on those fronts. But I really don’t think it’s credible to say that we ought to just slow-walk things. What it is fair to say is that it’s too bad the previous administration spent eight years doing nothing whatsoever on the infrastructure, health care, and energy pieces of the puzzle. They tackled education, the smallest of these segments, early on and made some progress but then didn’t seem very interested in following-through.