Our Views: Throw growth over a cliff?

In a season when families gather together, the birth of a grandchild is a happy event, even when it happens to a Washington pundit. But because he has so closely watched the budget dramas in the U.S. Capitol, William Galston, proud grandparent, was inspired to look at the kind of country he wants to see his grandson live in.

Is it Japan, a prosperous but debt-ridden land that endures perpetual political gridlock? That, Galston writes in The New Republic, is the kind of country that the United States could become, absent a reasonable amount of investment in our domestic economic capacity: roads and railroads, colleges and research, the intellectual means to compete in this new century.

Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, noted that should either party win its relatively narrow debate over budget policy this winter, “the portion of the federal budget devoted to domestic discretionary spending will shrink by nearly half, to its lowest level since the Eisenhower administration.”

Great, say conservatives? Not so fast.

“Radical cuts in the domestic discretionary budget mean a society that is less decent and an economy that is less dynamic,” Galston said. He focused not on the entitlement spending such as Medicare and Social Security, but the other spending that becomes unaffordable if the government does not get its act together.

From canals and bridges to railroads and land-grant colleges in Abraham Lincoln’s day, to rural electrification and highways, land-grant colleges and high-tech spinoffs from the space program in more-recent times, “economic dynamism” in America came in significant part from government investment, Galston said.

Sure, there were “canals-to-nowhere” along the way. Sometimes, as with the Sunshine Bridge near Baton Rouge, growth and traffic even catches up to the “bridges to nowhere.” Today’s budget prospects suggest a crowding-out of the investments long associated with American prosperity, Galston said.

“Intelligent public investment has been and will remain an important source of economic growth,” he said. “We need more of it, but we’re on track to get much less.”

Over the course of the budget debate, Galston has been a voice critical of both sides at various times. He’s critical of Republicans who refuse to recognize the costs of Medicare and Social Security, and Democrats who refuse to look at sensible cuts in this programs.

Do the budgeteers on Capitol Hill make “adequate provision for the future?” he asked.

It’s a question that should resonate.

Balancing the budget is a good idea and deficit spending is a bad idea, but both should be means to an end, Galston said: “I want a country in which all students who can profit from a college education are able to afford it; in which the young scientists who can make the next generation’s discoveries can get funding for their research; in which people get to work and goods get to market efficiently; in which our communications systems are world-class and open to all; in which we build the protections we need against the forces of nature we cannot control.”

Galston’s view is that the private sector can help in these endeavors, but “the country I want won’t exist without a level of public investment far higher than we’ll have — unless we change course.”

Can we change course? That question ought to resonate with everyone, even if one doesn’t have a brand-new grandchild to celebrate during this holiday season.