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Commentary: Target the stimulus at the building blocks of prosperity

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 3, 2009 - The conservative reaction to the stimulus bill wending its way through Congress is that permanent tax cuts and reduced spending would be preferable.

There is a certain irony in the complaints of Republican House and Senate solons given their record on spending, regulation and budgets during the eight years of Bush years.

The Bush administration's record, and the Republican enabling of the same - permanent tax cuts for the wealthy - tested only part of the conservative proposition. Spending was never cut, it ballooned. The gigantic war spending combined with the tax cuts set off an orgy of deficits.

What is more important and still lacking from the conservative proposition is attention to the basis of prosperity: education, health care, transportation and the sense that all, regardless of station, will be fairly treated.

Much of the current stimulus proposal represents immediate efforts to shore up income for those directly affected by the recession through such things as food stamps and unemployment coverage in addition to more aid to the states to maintain medical and educational programs.

The controversy seems to center on infrastructure spending and its value as stimulus. But these items should not be debated in a vacuum, and supporters have to repeatedly point out that very little investment has gone into infrastructure or green transition from an oil dependent economy.

Investing in improvements that actually shore up the foundation on which a viable economy is based - education, health care, transportation, greening of the economy and liberation from foreign oil - could encourage others, including investors, to conclude that we are turning away from squandering resources on conspicuous consumption, corporate perks, gas guzzlers and flat screens. To the degree that people think the stimulus will go into productive investment, optimism may be restored. In addition, commitment to economic fairness could unlock the effort and risk-taking required to revive a moribund economy.

Experience and economic analysis say that important considerations for economic growth can be found in the cost of moving goods, the efficiency with which we move them and how environmentally sustainable our transportation policy is. Investment on transportation infrastructure is hardly frivolous.

Perhaps a wedding between immediate stimulus and a turn toward real "investment" is a far better bargain than a focus on quarterly earnings and year-end bonuses. Immediate relief, while important, must be followed by a strategy to rebuild the sinews of the economy and provide for a future less dependent upon the vagaries of the Middle East.

The rehabilitation of policy and the restoration of optimism in ordinary Americans may be the most important outfall of the early days of this presidency.

John Roach is a lawyer who has long been involved in transportation and other civic issues.

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