Nation Can't Afford Short-Sighted ARRA Spending (Opinion)

Fixation on 'shovel-ready' stimulus projects jeopardizes technology initiatives with long-term benefits.

by / May 5, 2009

I'm sick of hearing about "shovel-ready" projects, and I bet I'm not the only one.

It's unclear who exactly ordained it the catch phrase of the $787 billion stimulus package -- I'm thinking three guys in pinstripe suits, wearing shiny yellow hardhats, digging ceremonial holes on barren ground -- but it needs to go away now. Shovel-ready is worn out already, and more importantly it's shorting the impact technology can have on the economy.

Yes, asphalt on highways and newly built government headquarters will generate jobs in construction and engineering. If you're a believer in statistics, the Associated General Contractors of America estimates the stimulus will save or create 2 million construction jobs.

But there's always the risk those jobs won't last. Because paving a road won't have much trickle-down effect in the long run: It won't spur the public to buy more American-made cars, which won't help bail out General Motors and Ford, or the thousands of companies that manufacture auto parts for them.

Contrast that with the potential double-whammy from the nearly $8 billion dedicated for building broadband. First, laying fiber is a construction project in itself, so that means jobs right away. But more importantly, it holds the promise of a long-term economic payoff by attracting companies to out-of-the-way towns; it's also a driver for the creation of small businesses. Perhaps I'm drinking the Kool-Aid -- and I'm not an economist -- but this just seems like good sense.

Sadly "shovel-ready" appears to have picked up an inordinate amount of momentum from those who argue that it's the best way to stimulate jobs. TV has latched onto the phrase as if the Nielsen ratings depend on it. So how do those who care about technology turn the table?

Preach patience. The first funding window for broadband projects started in April, and there will be more opportunities for money through mid-2010. The same lag time holds true for high-speed rail, electronic health records and green technology. These projects might not be built out until 2015. Most of the public doesn't realize this. Someone must tell them.

Simplify details. I recommend reading the stimulus bill if you're having trouble sleeping -- it's 1,000 pages full of lawyerly language and incomprehensible references like "section 611(d)(3)(B)(iii)." In comparison, offers a few vague pie charts and bar graphs. The trouble is nobody has managed yet to find the middle ground. Tell the public how many miles of high-speed rail and broadband will be built, and they'll be willing to wait.

Then the shovel can go back in the tool shed.

Matt Williams Associate Editor
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