Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders got an earful Thursday went he visited Bennington as part of a series of meetings he is hosting around the state.
The biggest concerns were not about the war in Iraq or health care. They were about infrastructure. That's what a massively reported disaster can do to the political dialogue. Last week's bridge collapse in Minneapolis has brought this issue to the front of the line.
Sanders' audience in Bennington peppered him with questions about not just bridges and roads, but water and sewer lines, cell phone and broadband Internet service, improved rail and air transportation and other public works projects.
These are the things that will affect economic growth not just in Vermont, but in the entire United States. A crumbling public infrastructure, combined with a lack of political will to spend the money it will take to rebuild and expand it, will doom this country to second-rate status.
Earlier Thursday, President Bush swatted down the idea of raising the federal gasoline tax by 5 cents a gallon and using the money to establish a trust fund for bridge repair.
"Before we raise taxes, which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities," Bush said.
We would strongly suggest that Bush examine how he sets priorities. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it will take $1.6 trillion over the next five years to fix the myriad of problems with the nation's infrastructure. That sounds like a lot of money, until one considers that nearly $1 trillion has been spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last five years.
There's always money for war, but the government cries poverty when it comes to spending money for the public good.
If the current leaders of this country possessed intelligence and foresight, we would increase public investment in mass transit, highways and bridges, water and sewer systems, telecommunications and housing. But you can't expect leaders who have contempt for the public sector to do anything for the public good.
It wasn't always like this. Our history is filled with examples of public investment in our economy.
The Homestead Act of 1862 created land grant universities, provided public land for homesteads and was the final push that created transcontinental railroads.
Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s provided more than economic relief for Americans laid low by the Great Depression. It pumped money into public construction projects across the nation.
Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, according to historian William Leuchtenburg, "built or improved more than 2,500 hospitals, 5,900 school buildings, 1,000 airport landing fields, and nearly 13,000 playgrounds."
Quite simply, the WPA created the public infrastructure we all continue to benefit from today.
What made the New Deal work was the idea of shared sacrifice now for shared prosperity later, with the government playing a key role in creating a more just economy for all. Sadly, this legacy has been buried by the anti-government philosophy of conservatism and years of demonizing government and the public sector.
A 21st century WPA would create jobs and pump money into the economy by not just rebuilding the projects that our grandparents built three generations ago, but also creating jobs in the new green economy.
There is certainly no shortage of things to be done.
The United States is the only major industrialized country that is not renewing or expanding its public infrastructure. Our current government has put a higher priority on tax cuts and corporate welfare for the rich than on spending money on things that benefit every American. And every dollar being wasted on our needless war in Iraq is a dollar that could fixing a bridge, renovating a schoolhouse or upgrading a railroad line in this country.
We need a new New Deal for America. We need to not only rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, but our crumbling social contract. We need a recommitment to shared prosperity and to projects that will help create that prosperity. The alternative is to watch this nation continue to disintegrate, both physically and spiritually.