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Inside the White House Jobs Forum: Infrastructure's Long Tail

The White House's Jobs and Economic Growth Forum yesterday was a fascinating, yet frustrating event. The president and his team were very forceful about the need for action and the seriousness of our current situation. Yet he was also quite sober given the fiscal challenges we’re facing as a nation and the tension between short and long term priorities.

After sitting in the infrastructure session yesterday, it is clear that there are no easy answers.

Of course, there were some familiar calls for ramping up spending on yet another heap of “shovel-ready” projects. But there were also strong endorsements for greater accountability and performance, job training, and leveraging private sector investments through transit-oriented development.

But, by far, the most enlightening comments came about halfway through the discussion when President Obama dropped-in to the session. Cutting through the meandering back-and-forth, the president emphasized his administration's understanding of the genuine need to invest in U.S. infrastructure. There's nothing he'd rather do for long-term economic growth, he said, than to take on the right kind of job-creating, economy-expanding infrastructure investments.

There are, however, several problems. One is that money is scarce. But there is also the reality that some of our needed investments do not dovetail with short-term priorities. The president said that "shovel ready, let’s be honest here, doesn't always live up to its billing." And many projects are outdated and inconsistent with an updated vision for the next American economy. He acknowledged that there’s a tension between short-term projects like highway repavings which "may simply duplicate the needs of the past" and long term priorities which "give a big bang for the buck long term but require extensive planning."

So how do we measure twice before we cut? Part of the answer, the president said, is a national infrastructure bank that could potentially accomplish three things. First, it would use tough criteria to choose the best projects, given we can’t invest in everything. Second, it gives us a platform to think about projects for the long-term, not short-term politically-driven pork. And third, it potentially leverages private sector money at a time when public dollars are in short supply.

Will a national infrastructure bank solve our immediate crisis with unemployment? Of course not. But the infrastructure conversation yesterday did signal a recognition that we need to move away from an economy built on bubbles, to one that ensures productive, sustainable, and inclusive long-term growth.