October 2nd, 2011
12:10 PM ET

Fareed's Take: Obama should declare a jobs emergency

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

America's jobs crisis persists and there often seems to be little we can do about it. But there is one area where government can create jobs - even if consumers aren't spending and businesses aren't hiring - and in a way that is productive for long-term growth: Rebuilding America. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that America's crumbling infrastructure needs $2 trillion worth of repairs, upgrades and expansions. With needs on that scale, President Obama's infrastructure proposals are at 1/20 the size of the problem. We need a big plan and a grand bargain between left and right to get it.

The first element of the bargain would be funding. Already, there are several good proposals for infrastructure banks. Relatively small public investments can be leveraged to attract much larger sums of private capital. Compared with other nations, the United States has astonishingly little private-sector involvement in the building of infrastructure such as roads, bridges and highways. With interest rates at historic lows, borrowing $200 billion by issuing 30 or 50 year bonds to rebuild America would add just a few billion a year to the deficit.

Then you need to actually build it. Obama said he was surprised that there are so few shovel-ready projects. Well, the regulations, reviews and permits required to approve infrastructure ensures that any major project takes years, often decades, to be shovel-ready. In fact, one study of a set of infrastructure projects found that, of all countries examined, the United States has the highest proportion of projects stuck at the "pre-approval stage" - announced but still 3 to 10 years from construction. This is more than 3.5 times the number of such projects, by value, in Europe.

President Obama should announce a national jobs emergency. Infrastructure projects listed under this rubric should be fast-tracked through the environmental review process, with approvals granted within 60 days. Additionally, the requirement that people have to be paid union wages should be suspended, so that skilled and unskilled workers can be hired. In return for these exemptions, Democrats should seek $200 billion in capital for the new infrastructure banks, which could easily attract private capital of hundreds of billions within weeks.

There is really no debate about the need to invest in America's infrastructure. The conservative-leaning Center for Strategic and International Studies issued a report in 2006 noting that U.S. productivity and living standards were declining as a consequence of neglect. It urged federal involvement and investment, pointing out that "creating infrastructure assets with long-lived benefits should not be determined by short-term cash availability." It also noted: "Federal deficits sap our economic growth, and must inevitably be paid. But failing to support long-term growth could prove even more vexing.... By whatever means, it is imperative that we make new investments."

Of the 2012 presidential candidates, just one was a signatory to that report on "Guiding Principles for Strengthening America's Infrastructure." So, I look forward to hearing a full-throated case for infrastructure spending during the campaign from that person: Rick Perry.

For more of my thoughts throughout the week, I invite you to follow me on Facebook and Twitter and to visit the Global Public Square every day. Also, for more of my takes, click here.

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