Judd Gregg: Prioritize brains over bridges

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In 1920, Vice President Thomas Marshall proclaimed, “What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar.”

It was a simpler time. 

Today, our political leaders claim that what we need is an infrastructure bill. You could call it the trillion-dollar cigar.

{mosads}This is the wrong primary focus.

What the country really needs is more skilled people who can participate in a value-added work world and keep us competitive in an international economy.

Infrastructure improvement can, of course, add considerably to our productivity and quality of life when done well — that is, when the money is not wasted and the cost is not passed on to our children.  

However, the Obama stimulus package that was supposed to undertake “shovel ready” projects, including making significant repairs to our roads and bridges, was an expensive failure.

Any reasonable evaluation would draw a stark conclusion: “Shovel ready” projects take years to come to fruition. 

This episode showed once again that when the federal government tries to pick winners in the market of ideas, as it did by throwing hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars at supposed green initiatives to create green jobs, it mostly wasted those dollars. 

Solyndra is Exhibit A when it comes to the misuse of taxpayers’ money in the name of a feel-good cause.

All of that being said, the political reality is that the infrastructure bill will most likely go forward, for the most part unpaid-for.

The results will hardly justify the costs passed on to the next generation. But it will be great for claiming accomplishments in the next election.

On the other hand, if President Trump and both parties in Congress want to move in a direction that might actually be of consequence, there are clear paths to follow.

What we need is a workforce that has the education and motivation to excel in a global marketplace that is no longer our oyster.

There are 1.4 billion people in China. There are 1.3 billion people in India. Both of these economies are hard-driving and technologically savvy. They are our competition. 

There are approximately 340 million people in the United States. 

We are at an almost 2.5 billion-person disadvantage when it comes to maintaining our position as the dominant economic power in the world.  

If just a small percentage of the people of these two nations engage effectively in the commerce of the digital world, we will be greatly outgunned.

Therefore, our course for maintaining a competitive advantage, or at least parity, involves having a workforce that is at least as smart as — and hopefully more creative than — our competitors.

The president and the Congress have a role here. It is an important role, a multi-faceted role, but it is also a limited role.

Government usually stifles creativity. It cannot and should not try to pick winners and losers. 

It also should not undermine our existing advantages in incubating companies that dominate international commerce, such as Facebook, Google and Apple. 

The downside that these companies may have too much influence in the American market is dwarfed by the upside: all the advantages that are brought to our nation by their dominance of world markets.

The federal government’s role should be to promote the education, skillset and talent that are the fuel driving the engine of our success, especially in technology.

The advantage that we still have over India and China is our especially well-supported culture of creativity. And that creativity is fed by education, competition and immigration.

The proper federal government role is to try to be an accelerant of all these unique attributes. 

Congress should be focused on enabling Americans to get the skills and knowledge they need to lead in this technology-driven world.

Congress should encourage people who wish to expand their expertise in part by using the Internet and our community and technological colleges.  

We need to revolutionize our avenues of learning for those doers who want to participate in this world of digital commerce.

Government also needs to figure out an acceptable way to allow into our nation the many people from across the globe who have the skills and knowledge we need.

They want to come here.

It is counterproductive in the extreme to leave people who could give us competitive advantage in India or China or anywhere else. Instead of boosting our society, these people become our competitors. This makes no sense. 

We need an immigration policy that acknowledges this fact if we are to maintain our competitive edge.

The “on-ramp” to success and opportunity does not come from infrastructure construction. It comes from giving our people the talent to contribute to our nation’s success, and attracting to our country the talent that will add to our advantage.

The president and Congress should reconsider their effort.  

Skilled people are what in the end will be the key to our success in this evermore challenging and competitive world. 

Creating an atmosphere that enhances their opportunities should be the priority.

Judd Gregg (R) is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee.

Tags Donald Trump Education tech Technology

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