America in the Last Lane

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As any competitive or recreational swimmer knows, the swimming pool has a strict hierarchy of performance and expectation. At one end of the pool are the fast lanes and at the other end are the slow lanes. In the fast lanes are found the competitive tri-athletes, the varsity collegiate swimmers and the Olympic wannabees. For them, the fast lanes are an earned achievement won on speed, power, strength, constant effort and steady improvement over time.

It’s easy to slip from the fast lanes into the slow lanes. Skip a few workouts, cut back on interval training, sell your kick-board for a cooler set of swimwear and soon enough you’ve lost the competitive edge. Your fall from competitive status arrives when the Life Guard’s steady finger points to you and then over in the direction of the slower lanes. In your embarrassment you realize that you have been “Last Laned,” sent to swim with the lesser mortals, those who do not aspire to be best, fastest or even most improved.

There is a lesson here for policy makers. (In this blog there always is!) America has always viewed itself as a Fast Lane nation. Americans live by a creed of self-improvement, high expectation, performance, effort and achievement. But, every time we travel in a car, board a train, log-on to the Internet or lower the temperature of the air conditioner on a sweltering summer day, we bear witness to the limits of the nation’s infrastructure. In this field of endeavor, we are not putting forth our best effort.

Forget the studies from engineers and think tanks, and reflect on personal experience. Count the crumbling sidewalks or streets you walk on or drive on. Count the minutes it takes to reach your Facebook page or download a YouTube video. Count the cost and inconvenience of flying to a destination a few hundred miles away and then imagine the values that would accrue if you could reach that destination by a high-speed intercity train.

Like those once very competitive swimmers, the United States has lost a competitive advantage in infrastructure. We are not the best in the world. Because of a failure to invest, we have been “Last Laned.”

The budget deficit and the national debt have frightened this country down to the bottom of our wallets. The word “invest” is now viewed as shorthand for “tax and spend.” What people fail to realize is that in an economy as large as America’s (still the largest in the world), debt decreases proportionally as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increases.

Investing in infrastructure puts people to work and channels money into their pockets. That economic activity, both the investing in roads, rails and ports, as well as the spending by individual workers, increases economic activity and increases GDP, which thereby decreases the national debt. This is the kind of investment that makes America a competitive performer. Improving infrastructure earns the country a place in the Fast Lane rather than in the Last Lane.

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